UK debut for robot milker
By Andy Collings
DUMFRIESSHIRE dairy farmer Brian Yates has had the UKs first Lely Astronaut robotic milking machine installed. Mr Yates took the plunge last November after seeing the system working successfully on several farms in Holland.
While Dutch farmers appear to have accepted the principle, British farmers have tended to be rather sceptical about automated milking. Why, then, did Mr Yates, who has 118 Holstein Friesians and a herd average of 8263 litres, opt for a system which represents an investment of well over £100,000?
"It was not an easy decision," he says. "But one of the most persuasive arguments was that it meant I did not need to employ an extra herdsman – good cowmen are hard to come by these days.
"If it was just down to cost justification, five years wages saved would pay for the Astronaut."
But Mr Yates realised there was more to it than that. How, for example, would the cows take to the machine and would milk yields suffer? Would it be reliable enough to work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year? And when the cows are out in the fields, will they come back to be milked on their own accord? Only time would tell. With the unit installed in the corner of the cows winter quarters, Mr Yates began introducing a few cows to the system and then, over a week or more, gradually increased the numbers until about 60 were being milked – a comfortable number for one machine to cope with.
The rest are still milked through a 16×16 herringbone parlour which could, if the worst happened, be used to milk the entire herd again.
So, after just a few months, how does Mr Yates now feel about the Lely Astronauts performance? "Overall, it has been OK," he says. "There have been a few teething mechanical problems but nothing that has not been overcome.
"Perhaps the most noticeable difference has been with the cows themselves, which are clearly much more at ease. Being able to stroll up to the milking unit as and when they want to clearly suits them and this is reflected in their health.
"In terms of yield I believe we are getting between 15-20% more. Some cows at the start of their lactation are choosing to be milked four times a day while those at their end might enter the unit perhaps only every 14 hours or so."
Each time a cow is milked its yield/quarter, time of day and milk quality is recorded – data that can be displayed at the press of a button on the office computer.
"This is really an aid to herd supervision," says Mr Yates. "And on that score, the robot gives me much more time to take care of management matters." All of which makes a good case for the Astronaut – at least for Mr Yates. "It may not suit everyones set-up," he admits.
With confidence growing to place greater reliance on the robot, there still remain some questions to be answered. How will things work in the spring and summer when the cows are out to grass?
"On the plus side, our fields are reasonably close to the buildings but it is a wait and see job," he insists. "All I can say at the moment is that we buffer feed through the summer and cows have always been prepared to return to the farm for that. I hope they will stay and be milked at the same time this year." *
Next, please. Brian Yates 118 Holstein Friesians make their way through the UKs first £100,000+ Lely Astronaut robotic milking machine.
Brian Yates at the helm. The office computer monitors yield/quarter, time of day and milk quality, keeping him fully informed at all times about herd performance.