TECHNOLOGY is constantly being developed no matter where you look, but not every new agri gizmo will be an advantage to every dairy farm business.

However, that should not make dairy farmers afraid of embracing technology if they can see a clear need for it and if the business model they have adopted can justify the cost.

The Scottish Farmer: Richard Lilburn from Brookvale Farm.

While some farmers run with a ‘make do’ attitude and stick with decades old equipment, others can see outside the box to relate to modern ideas and a new way of thinking.

Read more: Check out the new Lely technology on the Horizon for dairy cows

One such farm in Northern Ireland that has adopted change and has embraced new technology over the years is Brookvale Farm, just outside Dromore, in Co Down.

The Scottish Farmer: The Lilburns had installed four Fullwood Merlin robots in 2019 to bring about a better work/life balance

Run by Richard Lilburn, who farms with his father, Thomas, mother Olive and wife, Pamela, the farm comprises of 200 acres with an additional 250 acres rented for their herd of 220 pedigree Holstein dairy cows.

Maintaining a good work life balance is very important to the Lilburns, who use a range of technologies to ensure they have adequate time to spend with their families.

Grass is, without doubt, the cheapest form of feed on a dairy farm but it can work out an expensive commodity if poorly utilised. Maximising milk yields from grass is a key factor in profitable milk production on Brookvale Farm and more so now in a period of difficult milk prices.

The Scottish Farmer: At Brookvale a Grass Tech Pro-cut GT140 machine cuts the grass daily through the summer for the zero-grazed herd

With that in mind, Richard operates a zero grazing system that can achieve dry matter yields as high as 11 tonnes of dry matter per ha (DM/ha), if worked efficiently.

Most traditional grazed grass systems achieve utilised yields of around eight tonnes DM/ha, however at a much lower cost of production compared to zero grazing, given the machinery costs associated with the system.

This way of using grass can be a useful method of grassland management in the specific situation of fragmented farms, of which there are many in Northern Ireland. It provides flexibility in allowing the grass platform to be increased beyond walkable acres and increasing stocking density.

Zero grazing has been used at Brookvale Farm for seven years due to their fragmented grazing platform of 80 acres and family labour changes. Richard cuts the grass daily with a Grass Tech Pro-cut GT140 machine.

Read more: Reduce feed and cattle housing costs with grass

With weather being a large determinate of timing of cutting, on the Lilburns' farm, this usually commences each year in early April. The length of the cutting season depends largely on grass growth and weather but usually the machinery used for this is parked up in October.

Richard said: “In 2019, we decided to change our feeding system and fed TMR the whole year round. However, I found this system costly and reverted back to the zero grazer for this current season.

“Grass makes up a proportion of the diet as early as possible in spring and in a typical year 100% grass diet is fed from late April onwards. The current intakes of the herd stand at more than 16kg DM per cow per day of zero grazed grass,” he said.

The Scottish Farmer: Cows are fed zero grazed grass from April to October – and here's an unusual wide angle view of the feed passage

Richard and the family decided to further invest in technology and installed four Fullwood Merlin robots to help free up some time to spend with the family.

Cows are divided into two houses with two robots and 114 cubicles measuring 2.43m x 1.22m in each house. The cubicles are a cow-coon hybrid which offers the animals comfort with pasture mats and are bedded with a peat and lime mix.

Within each of the two sheds cows can travel anywhere in the building unimpeded and have free access to feeding, resting and milking at all times. The system alone drives cow flow, with visits to the robots for milking averaging around three visits per day.

The herd is also foot-bathed daily through the robot with four automatic systems. Dermatitis incidences have dropped considerably since the cows have gone through the footbath more regularly, with the solution changed every 75 cows.

Production in the Brookvale herd is currently averaging 33 litres of milk per cow, per day at 4% BF and 3.55% P.

The diet fed ration is formulated to support 28 litres with cows eating on average 4kg concentrates and the maximum being fed through the robot at 12kg of concentrates.

Richard said: “Rather than reducing overall labour input, the aim of going down the robotic route was to be more flexible with time for family life and not being curtailed by milking times.”

However, the use of technology on this farm does not stop there as Richard also uses a slurry aeration system (automatic slurry bubbler system, ASBS) which is an energy efficient method to ensure standard consistency and improved quality in stored slurry.

Air is circulated through valves which are fixed to the base of the tank so this air introduction encourages continuous agitation of the slurry meaning it is in spreadable condition at all times without the need to mechanically mix.

Also, a computerised heat detection system is used for the cows where each animal is fitted with a collar that monitors heat expression and transmits the data wirelessly to a computer or a smart device. Once heats are recorded, then the animal can be served.

An automatic Holm and Laue calf feeder is used to feed the young stock for 65 days from the age of one week. As much as this piece of technology has been important for 15 years on the farm, Richard pointed out that having his mother managing the rearing of calves was vital at Brookvale Farm, with attention to detail no less essential even with the automatic system.

“Technology is always at the forefront here at Brookvale Farm,” said Richard. “We will continue to strive to increase our efficiency and profitability whilst giving the necessary time to the family.”