LOW MILK price, too few cows in the herd and the cost of replacing worn components have made Gelli Aur College’s robotic milking system unprofitable in its second year.

Farm manager John Owen says the single unit, which cost 110,000 to install in an existing building in late 2002, has functioned well. Less than 10% of cows have been excluded through teat placement or temperament.

“But the machine works 24 hours a day and components have to be renewed, which is expensive. We have also failed to run enough cows to reach our target output of 700,000 litres of milk.”

Some cows are under-performing because increasing the herd means culling pressure has been too light, he says.  And the flat-rate rationing used for the year-round calving herd has led to overfeeding. But these factors have not been balanced by a good milk price. The loss equates to 0.5p/litre.

“Under our circumstances robotic milking has not proven economic. But we will press on until we have 50 cows in milk all the time and an annual 700,000-litre throughput.”

The college now plans to achieve this by culling cows yielding well under the 10,000 litres a head target, but taking up valuable machine time, and buying in replacements.

Evidence that giving robotically milked cows access to grass reduces total machine output means it is unlikely that grazing will be used to reduce feed costs. “However, a significant increase in milk price would change everything,” says Mr Owen.