By Debbie James

Average daily milk yield on a Pembrokeshire dairy farm has increased by 8kg/cow since a robotic milking system was installed.

The Williams family – Gareth and Annette Williams and their son Michael – had been milking 120 Holstein Friesians and Jersey-crosses twice a day in a 10-20 swingover parlour at Fagwrfran East, Puncheston.

When the parlour needed upgrading, they explored different options.

“I wanted to ease the workload on my parents but we didn’t have sufficient cow numbers to justify the salary of a full-time worker,’’ Michael recalls.

And, with a young family of his own, milking twice a day, every day, wasn’t an appealing prospect.

“We started looking into robotics and figured that the best route was automated milking,’’ says Michael.

They opted for a DeLaval VMS (Voluntary Milking System) for two key reasons – its unique approach to pre-milking teat preparation and milk meters designed to prevent over- and under-milking.

“We really liked the system because it offered features that others didn’t,’’ Michael explains.

Initially, two robots were installed in a purpose-built dairy complex but a third has now been added.

The complex contained cubicle stalls for 132 cows but stall space is currently being expanded to 170.

“We have a target of getting to 150 milking cows while maintaining current yields and quality,’’ says Michael.

When cows enter the robots, each teat is washed and dried with a teat cup unit. This not only ensures teats are clean and pre-milked but provides a degree of vacuum that encourages milk letdown before the milking unit is positioned.

Milk meters treat every teat as an individual entity, preventing over and under milking.

“In the past we might have had cows with mastitis in one quarter because of over-milking but we don’t get that any longer,’’ says Michael.

The mastitis rate is just 6 per cent. Cell count average is 120,000 cells/ml and the Bactoscan has reduced from 18 to around 12.

But one of the biggest bonuses is the uplift in milk output from the same feed ration – a daily yield average of 34kg/cow at 4.2 per cent butterfat and 3.45 per cent protein, compared to 26kg in the conventional parlour. Concentrates are fed at 0.35kg/litre in the robot.

TMR comprises silage, maize and blend with cows fed to yield based on DelPro feed tables on the PC.

Cows are now housed throughout the year, on a TMR ration of silage, maize and blend with cows fed to yield based on DelPro feed tables.

“It wasn’t our intention to house the herd but it works for us, cows are easier to manage indoors and it has freed up grazing land to make really good silage from a multi-cut system. As a consequence foot health has improved enormously.’’

‘Box time’ – the length of time between cows entering and exiting the unit – is seven minutes.

The robots have been operating since January 2017. Cows quickly adapted.

“Only one cow from the entire herd didn’t settle down to the system,’’ Michael reports.

Cows milk an average of three times in a 24-hour period.

Software provides Michael with all the information he needs on every cow, from her service history to her health record.

“We used to have a vet visit every Friday morning but with the VMS recording so much data down to individual quarter level we have better overall health and require less veterinary intervention. But we have monthly fertility clinics and discuss herd health planning regularly,’’ he says.

Robotic milking has given him a better quality of life and freed him up from milking to spend more time with his wife, Katie, and their two young daughters, Delun and Mared. It also allows him to spend his time with the cows more productively.

“I’ve got more time to do fertility work and foot trimming,’’ he says.

“There are so many pluses with robotic milking. I don’t see how you can add value standing in a parlour milking cows.’’