MEETING the challenge of labour costs of running a dairy while still having to run a busy arable enterprise was a major factor in a Fife farming family turning to automation for their milking cows.

Kirkton of Beath is a dairy and arable enterprise which traces its family history back to 1894 and is currently run by David and Alice Thomson, with their son, Fraser. The family were milking 135 cows and experiencing the challenges of labour costs and pressure to spend time in the dairy while managing seasonal busy periods at their arable business.

In 2016, they started looking at automation as a way forward which would be able to solve these problems.

“Our goals when starting this project and the main reason to invest was to increase milking the cows from 2 to 3 times a day, increase capacity and run our dairy enterprise with reduced labour costs,” said David Thomson. The project included refurbishment of their dairy and changing to cubicles from straw-bedded courts, as well as adding automated milking robots.

The family researched the highly competitive market and what was on offer, including local dealer support. They built a close relationship with GEA dealer, DairyFlow and flew all the way to the Netherlands to see the GEA DairyRobot R9500 for themselves.

Impressed by its fast attachment, yet simple operational design and confident in the support they would receive from DairyFlow, the robots were going to be more than just a purchase.

David said the flexibility that the technology provides was a big thing to consider, especially for mixed farms like his. “Automated milking system just makes life easier. Very much a good thing for family farms,” he said.

An added benefit was that one supply unit can connect to three robots, therefore reducing costs. Also, the biomass boiler provides free hot water and the milk cooling costs are minimal because of high capacity plate cooler with a slow steady throughput.

So, they made the decision to invest in the future of their business and go from their 10 x 20 Westfalia SwingOver parlour to purchasing three GEA automated milking robots.

David pointed out: “It’s been a lifestyle change.” First milking was in January, 2018 and after months of hard work, they now look back at the decision as most definitely the right one.

The robots have reached their targets of reducing cell count and mastitis rates on the farm, while increasing milk yields. Now they are milking on average three to four times a day and bactoscan averages 11 and the cell count a lowly 165.

But this is still a project in its first stages and certainly an huge adjustment for the family and there’s still room for improvement, pointed out David.

A major challenge came from working around the building work and training the cows to use the robot system. Initially, milk output dropped, but after two weeks recovered to starting levels, thereafter rising steadily. The balance between feed in the robot and at the feed fence was found to be crucial in getting the cows to visit the robot and encourage output.

Considering his thoughts on the future of the farming industry he’s been part of for 40 years, David feels that he’s made the right decision for his business and family. “No one is going to be a millionaire out of it,” he said. “But I’m glad to be in the milk industry over any other.

"We are delivering a fresh product supplied to local Sainsbury stores. A lot of challenges are potentially on the horizon, but also opportunities there to be made for a lot of people.”