18 January 2002

Robotic milking places cows in control of cycle

By Andy Collings

ON the face of it, investing over £250,000 in a milking system incorporating three robotic units could be conceived as bordering on the extravagant. But for David Morgan it is an investment made on sound business principles.

Mr Morgans 184ha (460 acre) farm in Usk, Monmouthshire, is home to 180 Holstein Friesians. Until mid-November last year the herd was milked through a 16×16 herringbone – an operation which, depending on the time of year, took up to four hours each end of the day. As a result, Mr Morgan reasoned that this did not leave sufficient time for the actual management of the cows.

"It was always a rush," he says. "And frankly it was a pretty laborious task".

Mr Morgan was also aware that labour problems could lie ahead because his long-serving herdsman is due to retire within the next two years.

"We have to face the fact that people do not now want the chore of milking cows all their lives," he says. "The world has moved on."

Stress levels

Imminent labour problems aside, there were also concerns for cow welfare and overall management with Mr Morgan believing that stress levels imposed by conventional twice-a-day milking were detrimental to exploiting the full yield potential of his herd.

"Cows, particularly freshly calved animals, need to be milked more often than twice a day and the whole theme of driving cows to a collecting yard to stand about for hours is totally alien to a cows requirements."

Convinced that a robotic system could provide a long-term solution, Mr Morgan began his quest to seek out the models available. After investigating several systems he opted for the Lely Astronaut – three of them with a possible fourth in the future. Each unit is capable of handling up to 70 cows.

"We split the herd into three groups with each being served by its own robot," says Mr Morgan. "This arrangement will hopefully allow us to improve our overall herd management potential."

Last November installation of two of the robots was completed. Extensive alteration to existing buildings saw two nearby areas fitted with cubicles, an underground slurry tank and scraper system and central feed troughs being fitted.

This accounted for 120 cows in two lots with the remaining 60 cows still being milked through the herringbone parlour and held in a separate covered yard. "We still need to modify the other half of the yard and bring the third robot on stream. That will mean we can then dismantle the herringbone parlour and convert this area to accommodate a fourth robot and its cubicles.

Persuading the cows to adopt the robot system was, according to Mr Morgan, relatively straightforward with little fuss. The cows were walked through it for a couple of days before being introduced to the milking system.

"It was all remarkably simple. The cows soon settled down and are now choosing their own times and intervals for when they wish to be milked. They are also noticeably calmer and quieter."

An important factor in the potential success of the robot system is Mr Morgans decision to house the cows the whole year round and feed silage, although use of a small exercise yard will be available.

Of the farms 184ha (460 acres), 72ha (180 acres) are used to grow winter wheat, 40ha (100 acres) for forage maize and 72ha (180 acres) for grass. With a reasonably friendly soil type, Mr Morgan double crops some of the land; once wheat has been harvested the ground is ploughed and seeded with ryegrass. This is cut for silage in the following April before being cultivated and sown with forage maize.

"The layout of the farm would not allow the cows to be out grazing and return for regular milking by the robots."

It is still early days at Mr Morgans dairy unit and the cows, which have undergone some major changes in recent months still have to fully settle to the new system.

Similarly, for Mr Morgan and his staff there is still a significant amount of experience to be learned about the robots. But there is no denying his optimism.

"Healthy happy cows in control of their milking cycle makes me and my staff equally happy." &#42

&#8226 Each unit can handle 55-70 cows.

&#8226 Perform 160-200 milking visits/day.

&#8226 Produce 1600-2000 litres/day.

&#8226 Designed milk each quarter separately to avoid over milking.

&#8226 Designed to detect and separate substandard milk.

&#8226 Automatically samples milk.

&#8226 Cow activity meters on collars inform of cows heat and sickness pattern.

&#8226 Cows can be milked up to four times/day.