Love them or loathe them, robots are taking over the daily grind of milking cows on many dairy farms – improving not only the well being of the animals but also those who would be up at all hours of the morning and night to milk them.
Add to that higher milk yields and increased components and the four Fullwood M2erlin robots at Parkend, Crossgates, Fife, have proved a real winner for father and son team, Brian Weatherup and son, also Brian.
“I can’t believe how well the robots have worked out,” said Brian senior, who has been looking at various mechanical milkers for the past 20 years.
“We looked at all the various makes and models and went for Fullwood’s new M2erlin because it’s simple and yet really accurate. It also has a quick attachment time and well, we had a Fullwood parlour before which never gave us any problems,” said Brian.
“It’s really difficult getting relief milkers in this area, so there are just the two of us milking here. 
“Before the robots, we used to get up at 4.20 to start milking 150 cows at 4.30 in the morning through a 30 x 30 Fullwood herringbone parlour which would take the two of us at least two hours in the morning and the same again at night. 
“We’ve saved five hours between us so now, provided there aren’t any cows calving or any problems with the robots, we have a lot more flexibility to use our time for other tasks,” added Brian.
More impressive is the fact, that despite all the stresses involved in the changeover from the herringbone to robots and the fact that cows no longer have access to the great outdoors, milk yields increased by a massive 1500litres in the first month, with further improvements expected in yields and cow health.
“Before the robots, milk yields were projected at 10,300litres at 4.0%BF and 3.2%P.
“The robots were installed in March, and projected milk yields now stand at 11,800litres at 4.2%BF and 3.2%BF with each milking female going through the robot on average 3.3-3.5 times per day,” said Brian, adding that the cows also appear a lot more contented now.
That’s with the cows inside 24/7 now too, compared with out at grass during the spring and summer months.
Contrary to popular opinion, cows and fresh heifers, were relatively easy to train to go into the robots too.
Initially, each one was guided once or twice into a Merlin robot which were used as out of parlour feeders only for the first week. After that there were only three of four cows that had to be ‘persuaded’ to go through. 

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When it comes to the actual milking, each cow is first identified by her Fullwood pedometer with the actual programming of the robot to milk individual females for the first time, taking anything from 30 to 90 seconds as each teat is identified separately. Programmes for those with just three quarters can also be installed.
Prior to this stage, the cow’s teats are cleaned before the clusters attach and sprayed with iodine after milking. The machine itself is also flushed out between each animal.
With each quarter milked and cluster removed separately, the amount of milk produced in each quarter is measured separately along with the amount of butterfat, protein, lactose and conductivity, thereby highlighting potential disease problems and heat detection, before they would be visually detected.
However, while the vast majority of cows are keen to go through the mechanical milker – for that tasty bite of blend if nothing else – not all do, with sick and lame females occasionally holding back.
Young Brian added: “Management is more important than ever when you’re milking through a robot.
“When you’re not there to see all the cows going through the machine, you have to make sure each one has been milked a sufficient number of times depending what stage she is in her lactation.”
Depending on the number of weeks post calving, cows can access the robot and be fed up to five times a day. 
However, they will only receive concentrate feeding and be milked at the correct time for that individual, which is worked out by the computer based on her previous milk yield and time since calving and date of next calving.
Admittedly, the robots are still very much in their infancy at Parkend, having only been installed in March, so there have only been a few teething problems, which have been simple to fix.
The best thing about the system though is the fact that any problem in the robot, or with a cow, and both Brians are alerted to it by a simple text or phone call on their mobile phone. 
The message will also tell you what cow and or where in the Merlin and what M2erlin robot, the problem lies and how urgent it is. 
Furthermore, if the Weatherups are unable to address the issue, McCaskie’s who installed the machines on farm, are only a phone-call away, and can log on to the computer system remotely to sort it.
While all 150 milking cows have access to the four robots, they can only enter and exit an individual robot the one way, which has the added benefit of them having to walk through a foot bath after every milking. 
This too has been fully computerised along with the M2erlin, as it refills after every 150 cows with 1% formalin added on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 1% ‘Hoof Count SC Extra’ added on a Tuesday and Thursday and clean water at the weekends.
“It’s the best robot on the market and the best way to milk cows. I haven’t seen anything better and we looked at them all before going for the M2erlin,” said father Brian, who is like a kid with a new toy. 
“We are still there to do all the work, the difference now is, the robots have freed up more time for us to concentrate on other jobs.”
The Weatherups have also benefitted from Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri-EPI) which looks to drive growth and support innovative ideas that will help farmers and business owners become sustainable, by providing some of the most technologically advanced machines and ideas to help transfer knowledge to relevant audiences.
As the Centre delivers research, development, demonstration and training on precision agriculture and engineering for the livestock, arable, horticulture and aquaculture sectors, Parkend is also trialling the benefits of herd sense Silent Herdsman head collars; Keenan’s In-technology total mixed rations, and ‘Archie’– a Joztech which automatically scrapes and washes all the slats in the shed, which in the long-term should help to reduce lameness. 
In turn, the Weatherups have built a ‘class room’ over the housing shed, as a demonstration facility for research, development and training. 
“The Silent Herdsman measures cow activity, eating time and rumination, so it is great for picking up oestrous and health problems before the cows show any physical symptoms,” said young Brian, who added that more heats are definitely being detected now.
“The silent herdsman is more accurate for cow health especially when it measures rumination as that is key to cow health and the first thing that stops. The pedometer is more for identification and measuring lying down time.
“We really have too much information to go through now, especially when none of computer data systems talk to one another,” added Brian pointing out that the plan is to have the three – Fullwood robot milking readings, Silent Herdsman and Keenan Intouch diet readings all communicating.
Since the introduction of the Keenan feed-wagon, the family has also been able to produce more milk from forage and reduce the amount of ‘sorting’.
All in all, the four new M2erlin robots have proved a real win, win situation for the Weatherups, with young Brian able to spend more time showing some of their top cows, along with his wife Gill and their month old baby, Hunter. 
Father Brian and June, also have more time now to enjoy their grand-children instead of working all hours, although, I can’t really see them spending any less time with their cows – If truth be known, the plan now is to increase herd numbers to 200, or 50 per robot!
It’s an extremely impressive set-up and all are welcome to the farm’s open-day, organised by McCaskies, to view the cows and the new robots, on Friday, October 6.