Innovation and automation are gathering pace on Scottish dairy units helping to improve herd performance, health and welfare and, just as importantly, business efficiency.

In the last 10 years, Lely Centre Kilmarnock's Gary Leitch, has seen milking robot take up grow 10-fold, and farmers are also investing in barn equipment – robot feed pushers and slurry scrapers as well as calf feeders.

“Automation is helping to redress staffing issues, and while dairy farming is often a family business, it allows farmers freedom of choice; it makes their lives easier and more efficient," he said.

“Current innovative solutions whether it’s milking, feeding, cleaning out, health or comfort, offer the same focus round the clock for each individual cow in the herd; they ensure she is comfortable, well fed and healthy and in turn, provide the opportunity for optimum performance."

He added that these solutions take away the 24/7 labour requirement including the shear hard grind of repetitive work. In turn, they give them the opportunity to focus on the cows and schedule their day and overall farm management around the herd.

Furthermore, as the trend towards larger herds continues, so does automation. Automation connects farmers, cows and technology together enabling them to produce the best possible quality and quantity of milk, in the most efficient way possible, said Mr Leitch.

Nine months ago, Martin Denholm swapped a hydraulic scraper for a Discovery Collector 120 slurry vacuum robot and he says it’s already having an impact on his 160-cow pedigree Holstein herd which is all lactation housed and based at Wester Lochdrum, Bonnybridge.

“It’s a great machine which actually vacuums up the slurry keeping the passageways cleaner and delivering benefits that contribute not only to helping improve herd health and welfare, but also the standards required by our aligned milk contract,” said Mr Denholm.

“It’s definitely had an impact on digital dermatitis; incidences have been reduced by up to 50% since the cows’ feet are remaining cleaner and drier.

“Legs, tails and udders are also kept cleaner and they are no longer splashed, consequently whilst we already had high milk quality, Bactoscan has been further minimised from 16 and maintained at 12."

He added that cubicle beds are also cleaner since cows are no longer dragging slurry on to them and that sawdust requirements have been cut to 40kg to bed 120 cubicles once a day.

Furthermore, power requirements have been minimised – the hydraulic scraper was burning up a lot of electricity, whereas the Collector costs just 25p a day to run.

Investing in automation was regarded as a common-sense decision for Martin who together with his father, Robert were amongst the first in Scotland to invest in two Lely A4 robotic milking systems in 2012. Since then, average yields have increased from 6500litres to 10,000litres.

The slurry vacuum robot is programmed every 60 minutes to independently navigate using built-in sensors to cover the cubicle passageways and heelstones, collecting area and across passageways. Instead of pushing the slurry forward, it uses a vacuum pump to suck it in to its tank.

Water is sprayed from the front resulting in better slurry intake, as well as from the back to leave behind a wet floor for additional grip, Martin explains. Once the slurry tank is almost full, a top-level sensor trips and the robot drives to the dump station located inside the cubicle shed, after which it moves on to the charging station for re-charge.

He adds: “Investing in this robot has brought added peace of mind – slurry vacuuming is guaranteed to be carried out every hour, every day and to a very high standard.”

• An automated slurry vacuum, one of Lely’s latest innovations, was among the recipients of the 2020 RHASS Technical Innovation Silver Awards. Called the Discovery Collector 120, the robot is a world first to both scrape and vacuum slurry.