19 September 1997

ROBOTIC MILKER

A BOON

INSTALLING a £120,000 milker on a Lancashire dairy herd has revolutionised day-to-day management and brought about radical changes to the farms daily routine.

"Now we are totally free of the drudgery of milking we can concentrate on the more satisfying side of breeding and management," says Kevin Leach, who runs the Leach-field herd of 70 Holsteins at Stir-zaker Farm, Barnacre, Garstang.

The single-stall robotic system was installed in April and enables Mr Leach to prioritise his work schedule without having to plan everything around twice-daily milking.

"We do not have to worry about milking cows any more. Not only does the robot give us time to concentrate on other facets of management, it actually does the job better than the best herdsman we could employ."

Lelys Astronaut robotic milker is designed like a single-stall feed station. Cows wear identification neckbands allowing them direct access to the robotic stall which has been housed in a purpose built building next to summer grazing and winter cubicles.

Cows have round-the-clock access to the robotic milker. As each cow moves into the stall a gate closes behind and the feed is dispensed. The main arm of the robot initially undertakes teat washing using soft rollers which are rinsed in-between each cow.

A magic eye in the arm plays a key role in the success of the operation by aligning each teat to a teat cup. As each cup is positioned beneath a teat it is carefully moved into position to begin milking.

Cups are removed individually as each quarter is milked out. Some cows have up to three minutes difference between the first and last teat cups removal. Teats are disinfected after milking.

"The whole operation is smooth, simple and always the same. There is no variance from one milking to another. Cows are calm and unstressed, there is no jostling for position at milking.

"Unlike even the best herdsman, the robot never has a bad day, never rushes, never leaves a unit on too long. It is the consistency of the operation, to which cows have access day and night, that is the real strength of this method."

Cows took just three days to settle to the system and newly calved heifers have been quieter to milk on the robot than they ever were in the parlour, he says.

Cows are only allowed in to be milked if the system, working from data picked up by the neck-band transponder at the entrance to the stall, is informed that the cow will give at least four litres of milk. Cows are visiting the robot 2.6 times a day.

A computer collects and stores a wealth of data on individual yield and milk quality as well as highlighting increased or decreased activity via a detector in the neck band. This can identify cows on heat or even cows that may be inactive due to lameness.

Not only does the computer identify mastitic cows, but will specify the infected teat. A dump bucket facility can be programmed into it to remove milk for cows receiving mastitis treatment. Aver-age cell counts have fallen from 80,000 to about 30,000.

The robotic milker means Kevin Leach can concentrate on breeding and dairy herd management.