Robotic system a smaller, cheaper build for this new entrant to dairy farming

If automatic milking is to realistically have a role in Irish dairying, then it must be integrated with the grass based system.

I recently visited one farmer who has successfully incorporated robotic milking into a grass-based system.

Rory Delaney farms near Ballyhaunis in Co Mayo. Rory is a new entrant to dairying, having previously had a herd of 80 suckler cows with the progeny kept to beef. Of the 80-suckler herd, 25 heifers were in a once-calved heifer system.

The heifers calved at 24 months, the calves were weaned off them in September and the heifers killed before they were 36 months of age. Rory got steer price for these heifer-cows. 

Overall, Rory says the “beef enterprise was marginally profitable but unpredictable”. Rory also kept 60 ewes, and carried out some agricultural contracting work.

Dairying was something that Rory says was always niggling at him, but it wasn’t possible for financial and quota reasons.

With milk quotas being abolished last April, Rory decided it was the opportunity he couldn’t let pass.

Rory sold his beef yearlings in the spring of 2014, and purchased dairy yearlings, which were then bulled. He also bought 15 in-calf heifers. In total, 91 went in calf. Rory purchased Holstein Friesian crossbred dairy stock, mainly on their EBI. The cows are about 30% British Friesian.

Rory then began selling his suckler herd. From November 2014 to April 2015, he sold his suckler cows in calf or with calves at foot.

Rory currently has 37 in-calf replacement heifers, and over 100 Angus cross calves from the dairy cows, which he will keep as a beef system, possibly until slaughter (the sale time will depend on prices and farm finances).

Rory says, “I guess keeping the calves is the beef farmer coming out in me”.

Rory planned to get a conventional milking parlour.

But when he carried out his costings, he found that by putting in milk recording and a feed-to-yield system, as well as having to build a collecting yard, a second bulk tank, wider roadways, more fencing and water troughs, he would have more spent than installing a robot.

Rory says, “The robotic system was a smaller, cheaper build and gives me more family time to attend sporting events and the likes”.

The robotic system also means that Rory does not require part-time help. The hilly nature of Rory’s land meant that, “If you had 120 cows in a paddock in the morning or evening, the whole herd would be waiting at the gap, and would cause poaching damage during wet weather. With the robots, the cows come in ones or two at their leisure, nobody rushing them and no poaching,” Rory explains.

Building work began on Rory’s new 126-cubicle shed in August 2014, and was completed in December, with the first cow calving on January 14.

Rory installed two Lely Astronaut A4 robots with automatic drafting, heat detection, SCC and milk recording with protein and fat percentages, mastitis detection and feed-to-yield system.

He says that the cows were trained in to using the robot in three-10 days.

Rory’s land was laid out well for an A-B grazing system, but he had to remove some stonewalls and build more roadways.

The roadways were considerably cheaper for the robotic system, because they didn’t have to be as wide as for a conventional system.

The milking block consists of 52 hectares in total, and is divided into an A-B system. The cows are allocated a paddock in the A part of the grazing block for 12 hours, and then a fresh paddock in the B part for another 12 hours.

The change occurs at 12 noon and at 12 midnight.

This means, for example, a cow that comes in for milking from part A at 12:10pm will be directed to B until 12 midnight.

If the cow comes in for milking again at 20:00, she will return to B; after 12 midnight, she will be directed to A.

The distance from the furthest paddock in part A to the robot is 650m, while the distance from the furthest paddock in part B to the robot is 760m.

The allocation of fresh grass encourages the cows to come into the robot for milking.

Rory explains his routine when he comes to the farmyard in the morning. 

“The first thing I do is go to the robot’s computer and look at the collect cow list, which shows details of any cow that has gone over eight hours since milking, then I look at the health list, which will tell me of any problems during the night”.

There is minimal maintenance involved with the robots, says Rory. “I clean the laser, change the milk sock and wash around the robots. Then I go up to where the cows are and change the fences, opening a new paddock, and herd the cows”.

So how does the robot work?

The cows come in at their own leisure to the robot for milking.

Each cow wears a collar around her neck for identification, if the robot is empty, the cow can enter the robot. Through the collar, the robot will identify if she is ready for milking, and will dispense concentrates based on the individual cow’s yield.

The arm swings under the cow, the brushes brush the teats, the cups are then attached to the teats.

Each quarter is milked individually.

This means that the cups are removed from each quarter as the quarter is finished milking, which avoids over or under-milking.

The teats are sprayed when all cups are removed, and information on the cow’s health is downloaded from the collar.

The robot will identify high somatic cell counts and incidences of mastitis for attention by the farmer.

The robot also helps with heat detection. By monitoring rumination, temperature and activity, the robot can alert the farmer to cows that may be coming into heat.

Rory has no regrets about choosing robots over a conventional milking parlour. He says it gives him more time to focus on issues such as grassland management and cow health.

Something like treating a cow is very easy with the robot, Rory explains, the animal’s ID is entered into the computer, and when she comes in for milking, she will be directed to a holding pen, and can easily be put into the crush for treatment.

Cows that are in heat can also be directed to a separate pen, for AI.

Rory would advise anyone switching to a robotic system to have a back road to the grazing block, if possible, as this avoids having to drive through the cows as they are coming in for milking, and returning to the paddocks.

Rory’s cows are milking on average 2.4 times per day, and he intends to build his herd further, to operate the robots at an efficient level.

Rory carried out his costings based on a low milk price, so the current low prices are not completely disheartening, just yet.


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