Robotic milking allows farmer to focus attentions elsewhere

The installation of two “free access” robotic milking units on a Yorkshire dairy farm are now providing a high welfare system enabling cows to be milked on demand. But as farmer Craig Bentley said “robots have given us our life back too.”

The two Lely robots have now been working for three years at The Gables, Kepwick, near Thirsk, and have meant applying a totally different set of priorities to the way the herd is managed.

Craig admits there were new management challenges to overcome. He said: “Making sure cows learn to return to the robots to be milked is a critical part of making a success of milking with robots.

“If cows don’t have a reason to come to the robot they’ll stay away, so it’s essential to make sure the quality of the feed offered in the robot is good enough to give them plenty of encouragement.

“The system relies on cows voluntarily coming to the robots to be milked – and if a cow has sore feet that’s a good enough reason for her not to make the effort,” said Craig.

The herd is now housed all year- round so cow foot care is paramount. Various approaches have been used to tackle lameness but is now settled to a strict routine of walking cows through a formalin footpath twice a week when the cubicles are being bedded-up. “It’s helped control digital dermatitis in the herd for just two 30-minute sessions per week,” said Craig.

The herd has used Envirobed bedding in the cubicles for three years. “We’re on a windy hilltop and using sawdust caused us problems. We switched to gypsum but were troubled with cracked teats, but everything has gone really well since we moved on to Envirobed.

“The best way to describe it is to say that it provides comfortable and hygienic bedding.

“Providing hygienic and comfortable beds for the cows – along with the robotic milking system – is contributing to the high standard of cow welfare and is helping to keep mastitis at bay.”

Cows visit the robots three times a day and produce, on average, 31 litres of milk per day. And the Bentleys aren’t having any problems with cows prematurely drying themselves off by fewer visits to the robots in late lactation.

“We actually have cows giving too much milk when they need to be dried off. We’ve just dried off one cow giving 25 litres; we had to milk her for another ten days just to get her dry.”

The herd average is currently 8,500 litres and Craig believes yields will increase further. He said: “Robots have made me a better stockman. I now spot problems early because I’m spending more time walking around the cows and not just waiting for the problems to come to me when I’m in the parlour at milking time.

“I clean all the cubicle beds twice a day so I’m seeing the cows more and asking more questions if I notice something that I’m not happy with.

065“The herd’s summer TMR diet is based on grass silage and wholecrop although wholecrop supplies had run out by June this year – but it’s equally important to get the cows to visit the robots.”

The siting of The Gables by a roadside makes grazing cows near to the steading very difficult and was one of the reasons why the decision was taken to house the herd all-year-round. “We didn’t have a computer on the farm before the robots were installed. But now the computer tells us all we need to know about every cow around the clock,” said Craig.

The bulls used to breed are selected with robot milking in mind. The herd is introducing red and white genetics into its Holstein cows including Danish Red, Swedish Red, Norwegian Red and Fleckvieh.

The herd is now carrying ten to 15 per cent of Fleckvieh crosses and a lot more Fleckvieh-sired heifers are due to enter the herd next year. Craig said: “They are very committed feeders and are single- minded in their approach to using robots.

“You always know if a Fleckvieh hasn’t been to the robot to be milked there must be something wrong.

“Our typical Fleckvieh cows weighs 950kg; she’s in her fifth lactation and giving 60 litres a day – and she’s peaked 70 litres in the past.

“We were struggling to get four lactations before we went onto robots.”

The Bentleys are also successful exhibitors of commercial prime cattle and last year took the steer championship at the English Winter Fair. Their winning Limousin- cross steer was bought out of Borderway Mart and in his 20-plus show outings he was never out of the top three.

“We show for the enjoyment of it. We’ve had a good show team for this year,” said Craig.

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