By Debbie James

A Pembrokeshire dairy farmer who installed five milking robots to ease pressure on high-yielding cows and staff has seen average daily milk yield per cow increase by five litres since making the switch.

Geoff Lewis had been milking his 300 fully-housed Holsteins twice a day through a 20/40 herringbone parlour but saw the benefits of getting high-yielding cows milked more often.

Introducing a multiple robot system has been positive for preventing mastitis and improving cow comfort.

“We have seen a huge reduction in mastitis, we rarely tube now,’’ says Mr Lewis, who farms with his wife, Lucy, at Pearson Farm, St Brides.

He believes the main reason is that each quarter is milked separately.

“When the four units attach they monitor each quarter, there can be a difference of five minutes between the first and the last quarter being milked.’’

Cow health and production were not the only reasons behind the change to robotic milking.

For five years, morning milking had started at 3.30am because the milk collection tanker was on the yard at 6.50am and this put pressure on labour.

“Ironically, we changed our buyer at around the same time as we installed the robots and our milk is now collected at night!’’ laughs Mr Lewis.

He looked at a variety of robot models before settling on the Fullwood Merlin M2. His herringbone was also a Fullwood and he had been impressed by the level of service he received from the company.

“We trusted the back-up and that is very important with robots.’’

Each of the supply companies he approached had similar ideas on the layout, with separate robots for the main herd and for the fresh calvers and heifers, so he knew the design he settled on would work.

A feed passage runs down the cubicle housing and the robots are sited either side of this. On one side, which has 100 cubicle places and a loose housing area, there are two robots side by side for the fresh calvers and for training the heifers.

On the other side, there are three robots for servicing the high-yielding group in the 170-cubicle area.

Each robot is numbered from one to five with number five, sited next to a holding pen, used as the training robot. Colostrum produced by the fresh calvers in this group can be retained and frozen.

Cows average 3.5 visits to the robots every 24 hours with some fresh calvers visiting for an average of up to five times.

The system is set up for up to six visits every 24 hours - if cows enter the robot but are not due to be milked they don’t receive any feed.

The total mixed ration (TMR) has been formulated with advice from David Howard of Advanced Nutrition, who specialises in robotic milking nutrition.

If cows are too full of TMR there is less incentive for them to visit the robot so it needs to contain the right balance of feeds.

Cows are fitted with Silent Herdsman collars to detect rumination and heats. Mr Lewis says the rumination aspect of this is vital for a high yielding robotic system.

“One of the main drivers in a high yielding and robot system is rumination,’’ he says.

Fertility did take a knock when the robots were first used, which was likely the result of stress associated with introducing cows to a new system, but this is now improving.

Other drawbacks have been an increase in the use of chemicals and electricity. “We have doubled the volume of teat dip used because cows are dipped four times a day instead of two,’’ Mr Lewis explains.

“Electricity costs have gone up too but this is not just because we are using more, electricity cost per unit has generally gone up for everyone in the last year.’’

The main driver of his system is the capacity of the cow type in the herd to produce more milk - he is targeting between 11,000-12,000 litres per cow, the herd average was 9,500 litres in the old system.

“Our cows are capable of higher yields and because they are being milked more often we are getting more milk from them,’’ says Mr Lewis.