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Automated route supports cows and staff (May 24)

Investing in milking robots, and other labour-saving automated tech, has

helped one family-run unit improve milk yields and cow health. We paid

them a visit to find out more.


Adopting robotic technology has been key to the evolution of Frank and Ian Disney’s 350-cow herd and dairy business, based at Loatmead Farm in Bradworthy, Devon.

The father-and-son partnership managed 80 hectares and milked 130 cows in the late 1990s and, after the herd was culled due to foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, they restocked by buying a 180-cow herd from Hampshire. Today, the business has grown to 800 head of dairy cattle, run across 290 hectares.

The Disneys installed the unit’s first Lely A5 robots in 2019, to replace its existing 12:24 herringbone parlour. “Although the parlour had been extended as the herd expanded, it was still taking us 11 hours each day to milk,” says Ian.

“Cows were spending too much time standing, which wasn’t good for them. As cow numbers went up, yields went down, so we decided we were going to have to do something differently.”

They believed automatic milking would take the strain off staff, and cows, and allow them to focus on improving individual animal performance.

Direction change

The four Lely A5 Astronauts were retrofitted into an existing shed and a new building was erected to accommodate calving pens, close-up dry cows, and two additional robots were also fitted for milking fresh calvers – one for heifers and one for cows. So there are now six milking robots working on the unit.

The investment in robotics led to a complete change in direction for the herd and dairy business, according to Ian. “We managed the herd on a grazing system before, and after installing the robots we decided to house cows. But it works for us, and we have no regrets.

Since moving from conventional milking to robots, the Disneys have been rewarded two-fold with better cow health and higher milk yields. The herd average has increased by 2,000 litres to 10,000 litres per cow, at 4.5% butterfat and 3.5% protein, with a somatic cell count of less than 100,000 cells/ml. Milk is sold to Arla.

“Spending 11 hours each day milking was extreme, and unsustainable for staff and the cows,” says the herd’s vet Andy Stokes, from Penbode Vets. “Cows should spend at least 12 hours each day lying down and chewing the cud, and then the remaining time eating and drinking in-between milkings.

Brush up: udder health has improved since switching to a robotic system

Herd behaviour

“Milking at this unit impinged on that. In comparison, box time at Loatmead is, on average, now just 7.5 minutes per milking. Cows visit the robots three times a day so, overall, milking now takes between 21 and 22 minutes per cow per day, which has transformed herd behaviour and management.”

Andy adds that the introduction of two Lely Juno feed pushers, which are automatically programmed to run at hourly intervals, has also been beneficial for rumen health.

“We don’t want the rumen pH to fall below 5.5 because this can put cows at risk of developing acidosis, which leads to poor digestion and feed efficiency, and reduced milk yields.”

He says the Juno emulates the cows’ natural grazing behaviour by delivering several feeding ‘bouts’, rather than one large meal, which avoids rumen pH dipping below 5.5.

Combined with the self-locking yokes, which help reduce bullying, the Junos have had a positive effect on feed intakes. Cows are eating 50kg fresh weight of grass silage each day.

The philosophy at Loatmead is to ‘keep feeding simple’. “There is nothing mystical about feeding cows on a robotic system. It’s like using out-of-parlour feeders,” explains the herd’s nutritionist Martin Barratt. The Disneys make all their own silage, which gives them flexibility to cut grass when the weather is favourable. They aim to take as many cuts as the season allows, and in 2023 they took four.

The farm’s high altitude and rainfall are not conducive to growing maize, so the diet’s forage ration comprises only grass silage. Ensuring that this is top quality – and that there’s plenty of it – is vital.

Eight weeks before calving, far-off dry cows are fed silage and a dry-cow mineral. Four weeks before calving, they move to a close-up group and transition to a full DCAB ration.

Milking ration

Once calved, cows then move onto a milking ration comprising 50kg fresh weight of grass-silage, 6kg fresh weight of a 17.5% protein blend (containing rapeseed and maize distillers’) and 100g of minerals. Cows are fed a 16.5% protein concentrate to expected yield through the robots for the first 40 days in milk. This gradually increases up to 10kg for the first three weeks and, after 40 days, cows are fed to yield up to a maximum of 17kg per head per day.

The unit also has four Lely Discovery slurry collectors and six Lely Luna cow brushes, which contribute to improved cow health and welfare. The Disneys have fully embraced the automated route.

Ian says the biggest benefit of robotic technology is Lely’s smart Horizon platform, which monitors a wealth of data, including fertility, feed intakes and health parameters.

For example, the Health Report flags up cows that make be at risk of ketosis by detecting a drop in milk yield, fewer visits to the robot, changes in rumination, and milk fat and protein ratios. These cows are given a product containing glycerol for seven days to alleviate any issues.

Next generation: the Disneys are building a herd and business fit for the future

Body condition

Weigh cells on the A5 robots also allow individual cow body weight to be tracked post-calving. In the past, cows lost a lot of weight in early lactation and this impacted peak yields and fertility. Typically, most cows lose half a body condition score up to 21 days post-calving. This amounts to 25kgLW. But cows in the Loatmead herd lose between just 8kg and 10kg, on average.

The nutritionist credits this to the DCAB diet and good feed intakes post calving. “The robot system is helping to drive intakes. Cows have much more time to feed,” he explains.

Udder health is also a priority. The Disneys began using the mastitis vaccine, Startvac, in 2022, and since then mastitis cases have halved from 60 to 30 cases per 100 cows.

Startvac protects against E coli and Staphaureus and vaccinating began to help reduce the severity of clinical mastitis in the herd caused by E coli. It is not easy to administer, because it requires three doses, which must be given 45 and 10 days before calving and 50 days post calving. It’s not a quick fix, but it’s worth it. The vaccine costs £20 per cow, but Ian says he’s seen a return on the investment. “There has been a 55% reduction in antibiotics used to treat cows with mastitis. Just 240 tubes were purchased in 2023 compared to 530 in 2021. And less than 20% of cows now receive antibiotic dry-cow therapy at drying off.”

Lely Atlantic’s vet Mike Steele says robotic herds do not have higher incidence of mastitis or poorer udder health, contrary to what some may believe. “The average UK NMR SCC data for 2022 is 158,000 cell/ml, and the current UK average across Lely robotic milked herds is 136,000 cells/ml.”

The robotic system is also contributing to better fertility, with pregnancy rates averaging 32% since May 2023 and the herd’s replacement rate running at 25%. Sexed semen is used exclusively on the top-end cows – selected on yield, milk quality and type – and AberdeenAngus bulls are run with heifers. “We’ve recently changed to all sexed semen for black-and-white cows for two services, and lower-end cows are put to Aberdeen Angus sires, and we also use a few Fertility Plus British Blue sires,” says Ian.

“We sit down once a year with our Lely adviser, nutritionist and vet to anlayse the previous 12 months to see where we can improve.”

Milk output

The current goal is to increase milking speed and reduce box time to improve milk output. The herd’s current milking speed averages 2.2kg of milk per minute and box time is averaging 7.54 minutes per visit.

Lely Center Holsworthy’s Merryn Cowls says that if the Disneys reduced box times by 30 seconds another eight cows could be milked in the time saved, equating to an additional 86kg of milk per robot per day.

Freshly calved heifers are currently run as a separate group, alongside freshly calved cows, inside the new shed. Having all fresh calvers in one place allows Ian to keep a close eye on them. Once all animals are confirmed in calf, they are then redistributed to one of four robots inside another shed.

Fresh cows are up to three visits to the robot per day within two weeks, which is good. Heifers take a little longer to get used to the setup, but within three weeks they are up to three milkings. Ian says they maintain that, on the whole, until they are dried off.

To improve milking speed, Ian now only breeds replacements from cows that produce more than 2kg of milk per minute. He is also placing a greater emphasis on milking speed when selecting sires to breed replacements.

Ian’s 16-year-old son Isaac is finishing school this year and hopes to complete a course at Duchy College before returning home to help run the family herd and unit. So Ian has a keen eye on the future to build a resilient business to support the next generation. “We are aiming to improve self-sufficiency and refine performance in the not-too-distant future".

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