Some would milk being hailed ‘at the top of their game’ – but not dairy farmer Alex Robertson.

Judges of the Dairy Farm of the Year poured praise on Alex, who manages the winning Coopon Carse Farm in Newton Stewart.

The Scottish Farmer: Team photo, with Alex and Liz Robertson front centreTeam photo, with Alex and Liz Robertson front centre

However, Alex very modestly puts the farm’s success in the award, which was sponsored by GEA Farm Technologies, down to team effort.

“We were thrilled to win, absolutely over the moon,” says Alex. “The whole team takes a pride in the farm. In fact, they keep it so tidy you could walk around it in your slippers.

“Coopon Carse Farm really is a team effort – everybody working together to achieve the highest possible standards. That’s not to say we are too busy for a good blether – in fact, encouraging people to talk is probably a key to our success.”

The Scottish Farmer: Cows eating in one of the shedsCows eating in one of the sheds

“Whatever else is going on, even during busy times such as silaging, everybody stops for coffee at 10am.

“Coffee time is so important. Whatever they’ve got on, everybody makes the time to come together,” says Alex. “It’s very rare that somebody doesn’t just mention something –however small – that proves to be important. We all go off after coffee to get on with our work feeling part of a team, that we’ve had our catch-up.

“My wife Liz runs the farm office and we live on the farm. If anybody’s working late, Liz makes them some dinner and I must credit her with all the little things such as team T-shirts and hoodies – the extra bits that bring the personal touch to Coopon Carse rather than it just being somewhere to work.”

The Scottish Farmer: 450 milking cows are monitored through the robots450 milking cows are monitored through the robots

Alex jokingly describes having worked at Coopon Carse since ‘Adam was a boy’, but in reality it’s 35 years. He was promoted to farm manager in 2002.

The farm was a traditional beef and sheep holding until it was bought by Dutch businessman Wijnand Pon in 1984. Mr Pon’s Koepon organisation also owns farms in Holland and east Germany.

The Scottish Farmer: Coopon Carse was previously a sheep and beef business until it was bought by Dutch businessman Wijnand Pon in 1984Coopon Carse was previously a sheep and beef business until it was bought by Dutch businessman Wijnand Pon in 1984

“It all started when Mr Pon bought a holiday home over here and fell in love with the people and the place, which he says has a lot of similarities with Holland,” explains Alex.

This Scottish arm of Mr Pon’s business has 265Ha and 450 milking cows with a further 380 followers. The milking cows are housed all year round in modern sheds, calving in purpose-built handling facilities. Throughout the summer, the majority of youngstock are grazed outside on higher ground.

The Scottish Farmer: Aerial view of Coopon Carse FarmAerial view of Coopon Carse Farm

The all Holstein-bred cows are milked through a newly installed state-of-the-art automated milking system comprising of seven rotary Lely Astronaut A5 robots. They are fed a total mixed ration (TMR), with grass silage and wholecrop wheat forming the key forage inputs. Additionally, fresh grass is added to the summer ration via zero grazing.

Milking cows are monitored through the robots, with Cow-Watch from Alta Genetics for the youngstock. Milk production continues to grow, with an annual average of 11,500kg sold direct to Müller, equating to 38 litres per day at 4.3% fat and 3.47% protein and preg rate 29%.

The Scottish Farmer: Silage makingSilage making

ALTA Blue link controls the breeding programme, which aims for 15 heifer calves per month from the best genetics within the herd using sexed semen. The rest of the cows are put to a Belgium Blue, with an Angus bull used on some maiden heifers –achieved through a weekly fertility protocol.

This targeted breeding strategy pursues high milk solids and high reproductive and health traits, allowing only sufficient replacements to be bred. Calves bred to beef bulls go off farm for the red meat sector.

Including Alex and wife Liz, there is a team of six staff made up of herdsman, tractor man, feeder man, calf rearer and two general farm workers who are flexible across tractor work to stock duties, allowing the team to get every second weekend off.

The Scottish Farmer: Milking time with one of the seven rotary Lely Astronaut A5 robotsMilking time with one of the seven rotary Lely Astronaut A5 robots

“Two years ago, I made a deliberate decision to get out of the office and spend more time with the cows,” says Alex.

“Dairy farming is a circle made up of genetics, staff, vet, foot trimming and nutritionist, and there is a risk when you become more automated of less eyes on the ground to spot the little things that can make a big difference. All the plates in the circle need to be kept spinning – drop one and everything suffers.”

Alex believes passionately in the importance of encouraging new people into agriculture, saying the industry needs to move away from the mentality of ‘my grandad always did it that way’.

“We have had to adapt to look after our staff better. People can only stick the very early milking mornings for so long,” says Alex. “As a result, we no longer start any earlier than 6.30am and make sure everybody gets finished by 5pm or 5.30pm.

“You get so much more from people when they are not fatigued and as an industry we need to shift the focus from ‘we’ve always done it that way’ to being more staff-focused.”

Coopon has been pioneering sustainable farming since it was founded in 1970, long before it became fashionable. Its ethos is that it ‘cannot be green if we are in the red’ and its farms are instructed to have a 150-year outlook rather than thinking short-term.

“It’s a great pride to me that some people might dismiss a large, robotically-milked farm – especially a foreign-owned one – as not having the heart of more traditional units,” says Alex.

“But that couldn’t be further from the truth. We have had 45 cows over 100 ton to date, many of which are mother and daughter or grandmother and granddaughter. The proof really is in the pudding, that the better you treat them the more they give in return.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the indoor system means they get the very best of attention. It was a great personal joy to me that the judges noticed how smartly we keep everything. I believe taking a pride in a farm’s appearance has lots of knock-on benefits, such as staff satisfaction. This award hasn’t happened overnight – it has been 30 or 40 years of building things up. If other farms took one thing from us, they couldn’t do better than have that morning coffee break.”

After the awards, the judges revealed that the process of deciding the dairy farm winner had been ‘very intensive’ with only one point separating each of the final farms visited. They described Alex as ‘someone at the top of their game’ and praised the way he has taken the major change of parlour milking to automatic robotic milking.

Ongoing work on new covered slurry stores was also commented on, aiming to ‘eliminate any dilution from the high rainfall area location to enable the farm to eliminate the use of chemical fertiliser and this also fits in with environmental aspect of the farming business and carbon management’. The environmental benefits of more efficient milk production were also noted, along with the farm’s efforts to ‘make the day-to-day management more streamlined and acceptable to the next generation of dairy farmers’.

And, of course, the ‘daily briefing session’ (coffee break) was mentioned, with ‘all the team able to discuss the direction of the business – something which is demonstrated by the number of long-serving team members who enjoy their roles’. The moral seems to be that a positive outlook is vital to today’s successful dairy farm. As Alex has demonstrated, the right attitude is like a perfect cup of coffee – don’t start your day without it.