Farming of any sort is a demanding, lonely, thankless profession, with little if any financial reward and dairy producers probably have it worst, being tied to the daily grind of milking at least twice a day.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. While there is no getting away from the overall herd management that surrounds dairy farming, the mundane, time consuming process of milking cows can and is being done by an ever increasing number of robots.

Almost commonplace on dairy farms, they are making a huge difference to the lives of Robert and Elizabeth Smith, son Alan and his wife Ailsa and their two young daughters, Anna (3) and Mollie (11months).

“We certainly have a far better lifestyle now than we ever had before,” said Alan, who farms in partnership with his parents at Barneighthill, Mauchline.

“Before, our lives revolved completely around milking, which at 6am and 4pm with only two of us on the farm, was so restricting. Now we are able to have a day away and even a holiday, provided one of us is at home, without having to worry about getting relief milkers in.

“The cows also appear happier and more content being able to be milked when they want to instead of being gathered into a parlour twice a day,” Alan added.

Housed 24/7 in cubicles, mats and sawdust and fed a more consistent high quality feed ration, milk yields and cow health have also improved.

Before the installation of three Fullwood M2erlin robots almost 18 months ago, this flying herd of 180 cows milked through a 14 x28 herringbone parlour gave on average 8500litres at 4.1%BF and 3.2%P. Rolling average milk yields now however stand at an impressive 11,000litres at 3.85%BF and 3.15%P.

“Cows are definitely more content, are easier to get in calf and they don’t get the same feet problems they used to when they were out at grass, so the hope is they should last that bit longer too,” added Alan.

In saying that, the boys admitted having the cows inside is better both for them and the ground with the 300acre Barneighthill farm comprising heavy, clay soils liable to poaching.

It also enables them to make more, better quality silage – taken over two bigger cuts to ensure a more consistent quality – and rent out the ground to sheep farmers during the winter.

While the robots don’t necessarily save time, they do help to improve the quality of life both at work and away as both Robert and Alan know they will be alerted to any problems through a 'phone call. They can even ‘log on’ to see where the problem is, or even just to make sure the work is being done by the other when away!

Alan added: “Robots don’t save you time, but they do allow you to manage your time better. There is still the odd cow that has to be found and milked each morning and there are still all the other jobs to do outwith milking.

“But, I know my cows better with the robot than I did milking them through the parlour. So much more of the work can now be done in the comfort of your own home when milking times and amounts of milk produced from each cow and each quarter can be accessed from the i-pad over a cup of tea in the house. We definitely pick up any health issues earlier than we used to.”

Now, 150 milkers go through the robot on average 3.6times a day, however, they can get access to it up to five times according to yield. Every 10kg of milk enables another feed in the robot and milking.

Fresh calvers are fed 4kg per day rising 0.2kg per day through the robot up until day 50 when they receive 12kg per day split over the number of milkings. From days 50-70, they receive 12kg per day, again split over the number of milkings and from 70 days onwards they are fed according to yield to a maximum of 14kg per day.

Milking cows are kept in the one group and fed a TMR based on high quality silage, straw, vitagold, minerals, binder and 3kg of a bespoke blend, twice a day to reduce feed waste.

In contrast to a growing number of dairy farmers who are looking to reduce their calving interval to below 400 days, Robert and Alan on the other hand are happy enough at 420-days when their cows are producing so much milk.

“We’ve got a second calver that has produced 23,172litres in 528 days and she’s still giving 37litres, although she is due to go dry in October,” said Alan who does all the AI work on farm.

Cows are dried off eight weeks prior to calving and have access to an old grass field during the summer, or big bale haylage, taken from a mature grass field.

Being a flying herd, all cows calve to a beef sire and mostly to a Limousin with calves with most sold privately from two weeks age.

All milking females are bought as fresh heifers, either privately or through Carlisle. On average, three or four milking Holstein heifers are bought every month, which take roughly a couple of days to get used to being milked by a robot.

While there can be hiccups introducing heifers to the M2erlins, there were also a few teething problems with the robots in the first few months, but even these were easy to rectify. And, even if they do cause problems, McCaskie’s Agriculture, who installed the machines, are quick to send out an engineer. And, a robot is serviced every month.

“We’ve never had any real issue with the robots, but then the service you get from McCaskie’s Agriculture is fantastic,” Alan said.

It was knowing the team at McCaskie’s Agriculture and their back-up service, coupled with the fact that Fullwood robotic milkers were a lot easier to buy that persuaded the Smiths to plump for the M2erlins. They are also a lot quieter than other robots on the market.

With the robots located alongside the old parlour – which has since been sold – the team has also created a ‘living area’ which is proving particularly popular providing additional space for timid cows and heifers that might have otherwise have been bullied.

While two of the M2erlins are accessed from the one side, the third has been designed to allow milking cows in on one side, while the other is kept separate for newly calved cows that need that extra TLC. Milk can also be taken off here to feed the calves.

Several ‘squeeze gaps’ have also been built in to save time opening and closing gates to the different areas of the shed, and self locking yolks have been incorporated along the feed passage to make AI’ing easier.

With each robot able to produce about 2000litres per day, the plan now is to maximise shed space to add in another 15 cubicles to where the parlour used to be and upsize actual milking numbers to 165, thereby increasing overall efficiency.

Despite the cost and indeed hassle involved in redesigning the housing area to install three robots both Robert and Alan believe the colossal investment was well worth it, albeit with a bigger debt it came with.

“We could have kept going with the old parlour and wiped out our overdraft, but we wouldn’t have been any happier. You have got to enjoy what you do and farming in a more pleasant, relaxed environment leads to happy cows and a more enjoyable work life.”