A STEWARTRY dairy farm has seen milk yields rise by 20% since installing four robotic milkers last year.

The average daily milk yield has increased from 30kg to 37kg per cow since the De Laval robots were installed in early September, 2019. However, the operation is experiencing wider benefits, such as more time to focus on cow welfare, plus increases in butterfat and protein percentages.

Grant Smith farms in partnership with his parents, Muir and Lorna Smith, at Keltonhill, near Castle Douglas. Their 220 acres is rented from the National Trust of Scotland and the family own the neighbouring Midkelton Farm, which extends to 280 acres.

The herd stands at 270 pedigree Holsteins, with 220 followers, which, with the help of four milking robots, Mr Smith intends to grow to 320 over the next two years. “We have an opportunity to make the most the investment in robots and increase our herd size by 50 cows in the coming two years,” he explained.

The implementation of robots has provided Mr Smith with a yield increase of 20% in seven months. The cows are producing 37kg per cow with the robots, compared to the 30kg he achieved with his 12/24 swing over parlour. “We have seen other improvements too,” he added. “The butterfat is up from 4.05% to 4.25% and protein from 3.25% to 3.35%.”

These positives are also good for Mr Smith to report to his milk buyer. “We work with Müller and have a Co-op contract. They were very much in favour of the move to robots and saw it as a positive investment for cow health and productivity.

"I have three meetings with the Co-op each year to discuss mastitis, lameness and other common farm issues, so the time I have spent focussing on welfare and its impact on milk yield, is very positive information to feedback,” he said.

Müller recently asked Mr Smith to reduce his output by 3% as a result of market conditions from the Covid-19 pandemic. “It is important that we keep waste to a minimum and we fully supported Müller’s request to reduce our milk production,” he said.

To adjust, Mr Smith has begun feeding whole milk to calves and has dried some cows off early. “This way, we are making best use of the milk, focussing on cow health and adjusting to the current crisis to prevent waste,” he added.

One of the principle reasons for a move to robots was to give the cows the choice of when and how often to be milked. “The benefit is the cows don’t have to stand so long. We have already seen an improvement in foot health and a reduction in the number of cows needing treatment,” pointed out Mr Smith.

“When we were visiting farms to decide which milking method to invest in, we noticed the herds that had been moved to robots were calm and content. Whereas, herds that had been moved to new, more conventional, parlours appeared more on edge,” he added.

The DeLaval VMS V300 robots have the mastitis detection system fitted, which has helped identify potential problem cows more quickly and be more focussed with his time.

“We moved to robots mainly to increase cow welfare. We looked at different options because our 12/24 swing over needed updating. The obvious benefit of the farms with robots was that the cows chose when to be milked and, in doing so, freed up more time for the farmer to concentrate on their health,” he said.

Mr Smith considered robots from other manufacturers, but said he was impressed with the way the DeLaval machines handled the cows. “The main reason we chose DeLaval over the others was for its attention to teat preparation.

"Once we had committed to robots, it was clear that the 3D camera attachment technology was more effective. The system learns and adapts to each individual udder, which reduces our involvement. The cleaning, pre-milking and drying of teats are all carried out by the teat preparation cup and the camera guided attachment works very well,” he said.

Mr Smith chose to install four robots, which are arranged to segment his shed into two halves. The shed is also served by two roped scrapers and six automated cow brushes. The installation was handled by Mathers, of Dumfries. “My family has worked with Mathers for three generations and their help and guidance has been crucial to the implementation of the robots,” he said.

By having the cows milked by four robots, Mr Smith said he was able to track vital cow welfare problems more effectively. The individual quarter milking enabled him see changes in yield more quickly and easily. This helps to identify cow health problems, such as mastitis, lameness or stomach issues.

“I can spot a change in yield for 70 cows much more easily than 280. It is also easier to identify which cow has a problem. Each robot gives me data for the cows in that quarter so I can pinpoint a cow and treat her accordingly to bring the yield back up more quickly,” he explained.

The move to robots has made valuable man hours available to complete other tasks on the farm and focus on cow welfare. “Not being committed to a regular twice a day milking schedule has opened up times in the day that my herd manager, Sarah Davidson, and I can use to assess cow health, deal with any problem cows and start making preparations to grow the herd,” added Mr Smith.

The strains on dairy farms to find and keep workers, especially those who milk very early in the morning, has made robots appear a more attractive option. “Farm workers don’t want to be up in the middle of the night any more and finding good ones, that are willing to, is becoming harder. I’m lucky to have a reliable team, but it could be very difficult to keep up with milking in a conventional parlour if anyone, including myself, fell ill,” he argued.

To increase milking to three visits per day using a conventional parlour would have required Mr Smith to recruit an additional member of staff. “We wanted to increase production without recruiting additional workers. The robots gave us this option and now we are up to 2.9 visits per cow per day and I haven’t had to increase my labour overhead,” he explained.

However, the acquisition cost of robots compared to more conventional parlours was a factor Mr Smith had to consider carefully. “The main focus for me was on the future. I want to expand and increase our herd size. When I compared the cost, it was clear that the increase in yield would help balance the investment in robots,” he said.

Mr Smith intends to grow his herd to 320, an increase of 50 cows, in two years. This will mean each robot is milking 65 to 70 cows and his goal is to increase visits to the robots to average three times a day.

“The robots have freed up my time and the time of others on the farm to focus on growth. With the old parlour, we were tied to milking twice a day which took hours away from focussing on the welfare of the cows and growing the herd.

"The robots have been in place for seven months and I am confident that we are in a good position to grow the herd with the team we have and focus on maximising yield,” he concluded.