Auto-milking is the future ... in Kerry anyway

One of the first DeLaval auto-milking systems in Europe with ABC-grazing has been set up on the predominantly spring-calving O’Hanlon dairy farm near Ballyduff in North Kerry.
Auto-milking is the future ... in Kerry anyway

Two DeLaval VMS Supra automatic milkers were installed last December, and another one in April. Prior to this, the cows were milked twice a day in a typical, 16-unit herringbone parlour, installed 12 years ago (up to three hours a day for two milkers).

The DeLaval ABC-grazing model has been successfully trialled in Australia and New Zealand, and is reckoned to be ideal for spring-calving Irish herds. Using auto-drafting (smart selection) gates and EID ear tags, it optimises grass dry-matter intakes.

Johnny O’Hanlon runs a herd of pedigree Holstein Friesian cows (the Rahela herd) with his parents, Gerard and Ann, on their Golden Hill farm. The farm is free-draining and only 1.5 miles from the sea; cows can graze until late November or early December, and go back out in February.

They produce as much milk as possible from grassland, and supplement as required, depending on grass growth, weather conditions, etc. The 125 cows are 80% spring-calving, milk is supplied to Kerry Co-op, in Listowel, and they also have a liquid-milk contract. The grazing platform is 45 hectares, and the stocking rate is 3.2 livestock units per hectare, including the autumn calving herd and in-calf heifers.

Johnny used the internet to study VMS with ABC-grazing around the world. Ron Mulder, a DeLaval grazing specialist in New Zealand, has visited the O’Hanlon farm, and helped set up the system. Johnny says: “Ron walked the land, discussed the projected cow traffic with us, we looked at the potential farm divisions, and the design of the Smart Selection gates we needed.” They divided the farm into three grass platforms (A, B, and C), around the centrally located yard, with voluntary milking machines. Cows walk one kilometre, at most, from the furthest grazing to the yard. Training cows to adapt to VMS and ABC took only ten days for 95% of the herd. Heifer training starts five weeks before calving.

Top-up feed-to-yield is part of the automatic process when cows enter the VMS. Some cows average 2.4 visits, while others visit up to four times a day. Ann said: “I particularly liked the online cell counter that comes as part of the DeLaval VMS Supra model, which gives accurate cell count readings for every cow at every milking”. The VMS Supra also has blood conductivity, with individual quarter milk recording.

The online cell counter can be set to automatically divert milk with high SCC, and to separate the cow for inspection, if required. A cow calendar feature sends alerts when a cow is due for AI, based on her 21-day cycle and activity measurement.

TBC levels have improved dramatically since the DeLaval VMS Supras were installed. In the old parlour, 12 to 15 was normal, but it dropped to 7, then to 5, and the most recent recording was 2. This is an indication of how effective the VMS Supra is in keeping the milking equipment clean. Floor flushing is activated automatically.

A CCTV system monitors the three VMS machines, as well as cow calving, and enhances farmyard security.

Of the future, Johnny says “having been recently certified for the Board Bia Origin Green Quality Assurance Scheme, where we achieved a score of 99%, we plan to increase herd size and expect an overall increase in milk yield, due to more frequent milking, better grazing management from the three-way grazing block, and the resulting, improved cow welfare”.

Gerard says: “With our DeLaval VMS milk recording, every day is simple and milk sampling is completely automated.” Johnny envisages expanding to 155 cows on his 45 ha, with VMS and ABC — if enough grass can be grown. He looks to the example of Tasmania, in Australia, where up to four livestock units are carried per hectare.

One of his major routine changes — apart from no more cow-collecting or milking — is moving three fences per day in the paddocks. Exceptional grass growth this year has helped him bed-in the new system. TBC and SCC figures have improved.

The local DeLaval dealer, Eddie Slattery Dairy and Refrigeration Ltd, in Tralee, installed the VMS machines, and a new 16,000-litre DeLaval DXCEM bulk tank with a heat-recovery system. This tank cools the milk quickly to the ideal temperature, and can be washed in only 20 minutes.

Johnny would encourage every farmer who is committed to milk to look at how robots could work for them. “We can do the work when we want to rather than be tied to milking times,” he says.

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