Potstown Farm just outside Lockerbie has witnessed some big changes in recent years, with the introduction of four new Lely robot milkers; a new housing shed; increased herd numbers and most excitingly, four new little members to the family.

Admittedly, these alterations have not only improved the overall management of the now 230-cow herd, but also updated the working environment for the Owen family. Just as importantly, cow comfort and animal welfare has taken another step forward, ensuring the herd has once again been named as one of the top 20 dairy herds in Scotland.

Father and son team Tom and Gareth Owen work full time on this 381-acre unit which has seen Holstein herd numbers increase by almost 50%, over the past six years, with assistance of dairy-man, Kenny Dunbar and Gareth’s brother David Owen, who works in his spare time alongside his own farm consultancy business, Owen Farm Services.

Gareth said: “Herd expansion came as a result of being offered the next-door farm for sale, we had been looking at ways of expanding on the original acreage of Potstown, but the extra land made this far more straightforward and viable.”

The biggest increase, alongside the small number of Jersey cross females came with the purchase of 67 Holsteins from Germany, which were selected for their excellent health status and have since climatized well. The plan now however is to concentrate more on breeding home-bred replacement females to supplement the herd, by around 35 each year.

It is nevertheless the new housing shed that has made the biggest difference. This Robinson’s 300ft x 140ft building saw construction begin in September 2014, and was fully functional by the following June to accommodate all 240 cows with new 50mm double foam mattresses and cubicles from Easyfix and supplied by James Smith Fencing.

Prior to the new dairy housing unit, the Owens noticed cows picking up injuries in their existing steel cubicles like abrasions on their back and lameness from the hard flooring. The new facilities have seen a substantial boost to livestock welfare and with the animals now being kept inside throughout the year the Owens have been careful to keep on top of preventative hoof trimming. Hoof trimmer Gareth Lacey, comes out once a month to check for any problems and trims around 25 cow’s hooves each time.

Animal welfare has also been improved by the introduction of four new Lely robots between 2012 and 2015, supplied and serviced by the Lely Centre in Longtown. The robots allow the cattle to roam freely in to the milking stalls when they wish with average milking per cow of three times a day with the highest yielders producing milk five times. Gareth: “Robots are far kinder to high yielding cows in my opinion as it lets them get milked as and when they want and takes pressure off their udders, true freedom for cows to choose when they are milked.”

The brushes in the machine clean the individual teats, stimulating milk flow and maintaining good hygiene. The quarters are individually milked to avoid over milking and the cleanliness of the operation has also led to a reduction in mastitis rates.

The machines monitor the weight of milk from individual cows and ration feed accordingly to milk production, with the highest yielders fed around 20kg of cake over a 24-hour period. The robots clean themselves thoroughly three times a day and as Gareth jokes “they don’t call in sick” allowing the Owens to spend more time with their new family; including Gareth and Annette’s two children, two-year-old Chloe and five-week-old Charlie, the newest addition to the Owen family, as well as their twin cousins, three-year old’s Eilidh and Calum.

As well as improved animal health, the robots have brought significant economic benefits to the business through increased milk production. In 2012 with the first two Lely robots in the old shed, milk went up to 11500kg compared with 10500kg twice a day milking in the parlour. The highest yielders are now producing around 15000kg.

The Owen family are currently producing 6500L daily from 200 cows at 4.2% Butterfat and 3.20% protein. When the new shed was installed in 2015 and the family began to increase the herd size with the new space available, there was an initial drop in milk per cow as they were running at 60% heifers for the first year in the new shed.

Now however, with a 200+ strong cow herd, they are not only reaping the rewards of the robots but also the new housing unit boasting improved cow comfort. The cattle adapted well to their new surroundings too – a relief for the Owens who said there were no culls post their introduction, with the robots, they believe, delivering around a 10% increase in milk yields.

Diet is also crucial with silage provided all year round alongside straw pellets. As well as the four Lely robots in the shed there are six out of parlour feeders that the higher yielder cows have access to, to receive their full cake allocation. The cattle are regularly checked by herd vet Callum Cameron from Ark Vet centre, Lockerbie, who comes out every two weeks to carry out pregnancy diagnoses and check on the development of fresh cows.

One thing is for sure, livestock welfare is of paramount importance to the Owens and they admitted that overall herd health has been one of the most notable improvements they have witnessed with the new shed and robots.

Fertility rates have slipped slightly in the past year in the cows which was expected since the introduction of sexed semen in 2016. Conception rates in the heifers have been 50%+ to sexed semen for several years now. Overall Sexed semen has been successful with cows producing one bull calf in 11 calves. There is a high demand for the Angus and British Blue cross calves which are kept in the old shed and sold between three and eight weeks.

The Owens will look to fill the shed with around 20/30 more cows in the future and will continue to supply milk to Yew Tree Dairy who are based in Skelmersdale.

Overall, the improvements brought by the new robots, shed and cattle bedding has allowed for greater individual attention on the health of the cattle, increased milk yields and has been more suited to the Owens family unit.