By debbie James

Innovative farming technology is allowing one Pembrokeshire dairy farm to increase herd performance.

John and Mair Allison run a 250-cow Holstein Friesian herd at 370-acre Sychpant Farm, Rhos-hill, near Cardigan, with their son and daughter-in-law, Marc and Lucy.

Their eldest son, Tom, is a dairy engineer and consultant specialising in innovation for farms and rural businesses. He has been instrumental in driving the use of new technologies at Sychpant Farm.

A state-of-the-art cubicle shed, which has been in use for two winters, is a case in point. It features induction lighting, polycarbonate cladding and controlled ventilation delivered by large louvred fans which help prevent heat-related stress as well as reducing humidity and improving air quality.

When the herd first moved into the shed, milk output increased by 10 per cent overall, an uplift Tom puts down to the improved environment and better utilisation of feed.

The family had originally intended to construct a naturally ventilated barn but, because the farm is on an exposed site, rain would have penetrated the entire south and west facing sides during wet and windy conditions.

“We thought about a curtain or louvres to protect these sides but realised that this would compromise the natural ventilation as there would be nowhere for clean air to be drawn in if the sides were shut,’’ explains Tom.

“By totally enclosing the building we could ensure that we got the ventilation right every day.’’

The building also offers some inherent bio-security, including starling resistance, as the doors are kept closed and the air intake is meshed.

The technology in the new building cost around £65,000 and includes 10 fans, a long day lighting and moon lighting system, an air intake curtain system, polycarbonate side cladding and a computer controlled system that includes temperature, humidity and static pressure sensors.

Tom is confident the technology will pay for itself within two years. He calculates this figure using the results of a starling control report commissioned by Kingshay in 2014.

“For a building housing 250 cattle, ensuring it is starling proof should provide a very compelling argument for the payback of the extra equipment such as fans and polycarbonate. Based on these figures, which take into account lost milk output due to loss in feed quality and volume of feed loss, the savings should be £40,000 over the five-month housing period,’’ says Tom.

“Even though there are other benefits, such as the increased milk production we observed, we can’t attribute the increase to just one technology. My payback figure ignores all other benefits as it is too early to evaluate these.’’

After the cows moved into the shed, the Allisons shifted the calving pattern from all year around to an autumn block, calving a large number of cows last autumn. “It is a qualifier for why we haven’t tubed cows,’’ Tom reckons.

And last October, to increase output, the herd was milked three times a day instead of the usual two.

“As milk production has eased off in May we have moved back to twice a day but we will reintroduce it again this autumn if we have sufficient labour to make it work.’’

The herd is averaging 9,800kg a year at 4.4 per cent butterfat and 3.4 per cent protein, with milk sold to First Milk.

Technology is also driving other areas of the business. Sensors in the milking parlour monitor vacuum levels and temperature monitoring boluses are used.

“By intervening before cows display physical signs of being sick we can take measures that can reduce the need for antibiotics and the withholding of milk and even prevent mastitis that affects production over a lifetime,’’ Tom explains.

“We didn’t tube a cow for mastitis between the beginning of October and the end of April.’’

The rolling cell count is 115,000 cells/ml and the Bactoscan is 18.

Another factor in this is a new system designed to control liner movement in the cluster so that the cow experiences a gentler milking. Tom says Sychpant is the first farm in the UK to use SurePulse.

“It has helped with mastitis, improved teat condition and driven down cell counts,’’ he says.