Refining herd feeding using a robotic system and the latest technology means one Somerset-based herd is reaping the rewards of higher yields and improved cow performance.
TEXT LAURENCE BROWN
Dillington Estate's 350-cow cross-bred herd has been run using a robotic system since 2016 and has since evolved into a high-performance set up. Housed in a purpose-built cubicle shed, the milking herd is split into six groups of 60 cows each, milked through one of six Lely Astronaut A4 robots. The herd is now averaging 11,000 litres of milk, at 4.20% fat and 3.56% protein, up from 8,500 litres when the then 170-cow herd was milked twice a day through the unit’s 12:24 herringbone parlour.
“We decided to invest in automation to boost cow performance, but also future-proof the business by making it an attractive workplace for prospective employees,” explains the estate’s farm manager Ollie Blackburn. “The ability to refine and improve the system by utilising robotic technology also made it an attractive route to take.”
As well as improved milk yield – the result of cows visiting the robots to be milked, on average, 3.1 times a day – feed costs are around 12.68ppl. “We are pleased with current herd performance, but we’re always looking to improve. The goal now is to push the yield and efficiency of every cow we have on the unit,” adds Ollie.
The estate had previously dedicated much of its resources into its potato-growing enterprise, but a significant wireworm outbreak in 2022 means the dairy herd is now the estate’s core business. This refocus has prompted a range of management decisions tailored to help better support the dairy unit, with more of the estate’s 840 hectares now used for forage production.
The dairy unit is in a mid-tier Countryside Stewardship scheme, and this influences Ollie’s approach to producing home-grown forage. “We aim to take the best first cut possible for the milking herd, and then use the 15-metre GS4 herbal margins to feed our dry cows and youngstock,” he explains. “We’ve moved away from a multi-cut system to a single-cut system, with a second cut up our sleeves if it’s needed.
“All grass leys now include red clover, which helps to reduce nitrogen applications and increases the protein content of the grass silage produced. We’re also fortunate that a local AD plant will take grass as a crop, so this gives us the confidence to keep a large amount of grassland in rotation. We aim to grow everything we need for the cows, and if there’s any excess or poor-quality grass it won’t go to waste. It can be sold to the AD plant as a useful commodity.” ForFarmers’ Dave Hinkins has been helping Ollie and his team formulate a ration to accommodate changes in farm policy and maximise cow performance in a robotic system.
Ensuring there is plenty of feed at the barrier encourages travel to the robots so, as it stands, the milking herd’s core ration is 11kg of first-cut silage, 29kg of maize, 1.5kg of home-grown ground beans, and 3.2kg of rape/ protected rape blend. The TMR also comprises 120g of urea, to drive intakes and rumen function, as well as a range of minerals. This base diet supports maintenance plus 28 litres, with average dry matter intakes currently standing at 25kg, with 15.3kg from forage. Individual cows are then fed up to 10.5kg of an 18% protein concentrate through the robots, which helps push up yields to a maximum of 52 litres.
“Variable diet formulations require continual adjustments, so we review the diet whenever we make a change to the forages and compounds used,” explains Dave. “We want to feed a ration that’s as consistent as possible and avoid a situation where there’s leftover concentrate. In robotic systems this can create ‘rest-feed’ issues, where a certain level of feed is programmed for the cow to receive through the robots, but not all of this feed is consumed.”
A key benefit of a robotic system is the ability to actively monitor multiple metrics to assess whether it’s achieving its full potential at a group or individual cow level. The herd uses ForFarmers’ Robotic Analysis Programme, which Dave monitors closely to observe robot visits, compound use per kilogramme of milk produced, and milk yield.
“The programme allows us to quickly identify issues that may impact cow performance,” he says. “In 2022, during late autumn and early winter, we noticed decreased cow performance and acidosis issues,” adds Ollie. “Using the data provided by the programme, we were able to pinpoint the problem to a specific grasssilage clamp. This allowed us to quickly resolve the issue and get cow performance back on track.
“On paper we had produced an 11.8 ME grass silage that should have fed really well,” adds Ollie. “But when we looked more closely, using the robotic analysis programme findings, we saw that the clamp in question was a mixture of grasses and some had a 17% sugar content. Typically it would be between 3% and 5%. At a 50:50 ratio of maize to grass, this was causing significant digestive issues and cases of acidosis.” Since then the ration has been reformulated with a higher proportion of maize, and the milking herd is recovering well after a short period of sub-optimal production. “Without the robotic analysis programme, it would have been a much slower process to identify and eliminate the problem, so it really has made a huge difference,” says Ollie. “It’s a good example of how well the programme works, and the extra insights to be gained when managing a herd using a robotic system.”