Automated technology is helping to improve herd productivity, both easily and efficiently, and paying significant dividends on one Cornwall-based family-run unit. So how does it work?
TEXT ALIX MORLEY
Practicality and a drive for efficiency have both played a role in developing the pedigree Holstein herd at Newlands Farm in Cornwall.
Newlands Farm, Cornwall
David Luxton runs the 200-cow unit, based near Bude, with his partner Sarah and her parents, Rob and Elizabeth Haworth. Having previously worked in agricultural sales, David has been at the farm for 13 years, and in January 2022, Newlands joined AHDB’s strategic dairy farm network.
The farm has been in Sarah’s family since the 1960s. Her parents took charge of running the herd in the 1980s. David and Sarah returned to the farm in 2009, when Newlands was run as a grass-based system with 150 cows milked through a 16:16 herring bone parlour. Today Elizabeth manages calf rearing and office work, with Rob undertaking any required maintenance work. And the family now runs an all-year-round calving herd, with 180 in milk at any one time, plus 150 followers. The herd is fully housed and milked by three robots.
“One of the first things we wanted to do was increase total milk production,” says David, adding that they did this by increasing herd size. “But the herd quickly outgrew the unit’s infrastructure.”
Focused on creating a profitable and sustainable business for the future, David and Sarah explored different systems, before deciding to invest in a DeLaval guided robotic system in a purpose-built shed. Installation was completed in 2019.
“We wanted to milk cows effectively and efficiently, and improve the work-life balance – for both ourselves and our staff,” says David, who was also conscious of the incredibly competitive labour market in their region. This isn’t a typical robotic unit. It’s run on a guided system, and all the equipment in the shed is fully automated, including scrapers. An automatic feed pusher ensures silage is always within reach, and smart gates manage the movement of the cows. “This means that there’s minimal disruption to the herd throughout the day. We go in and feed and bed up once a day, but other than that we don’t have to disturb the cows.”
Helping hand: robot pushes feed up to barrier
The guided system also supports cow flow and ensures efficient use of the set-up’s three robots. “A series of non-return and selection gates help dictate where the cows go, and moves them around the shed,” explains David. “Cows are only released into the milking pen if they have the right ‘permissions’. Once they have been through the robots, a second selection gate can also help separate any cows from the herd that require treatment or additional management that day.”
David believes the guided system is key to reaping the benefits of the robots. “We don’t waste time in the robots with cows walking through when they don’t need milking. We are running nearly 60 cows per robot, with plenty of scope to add more. I believe the guided system produces more milk per robot.”
The decision to invest in this system has certainly paid off for the Luxtons. Since installing the robots, average yield has increased to 11,500 litres, at 4.30% butterfat and 3.32% protein, from 8,500 litres. And it is expected that this will increase further. Herd average somatic cell count stands at 130,000 cells/ml. Fertility has also improved with pregnancy rate up from 13% to 24%. “Improved accommodation and cow comfort means cows are able to better express heats, which has helped with oestrus detection, and we also use Cogent’s heat-detection service,” says David. “There is room for improvement, but we are pleased with progress so far.”
The Luxtons are certainly keen to continue improving all aspects of herd management, and this includes calf rearing. “Calves are fed on an automatic calf feeder, which has helped to improve growth rates, and we typically achieve an average weaning weight, at between six and seven weeks, of around 80kg,” says David. As part of the strategic farm programme, David is looking to reduce the average age at first calving, focusing on feed and nutrition management. “Currently we were running at 26 months – higher than the optimal 24 months for greater efficiency,” says David. “So we’re looking to reduce this to two years.” Sexed semen is used on all cows for the first two servings, to breed replacements. “Any cows that haven’t held are then served with Angus or Limousin semen,” says David, adding that beef calves are sold at 10 days old to a regular buyer.
Milk is sold to Saputo on a constituents contract, and the Luxtons use Cogent’s sire-matching service to select sires that ensure butterfat and protein levels are maintained. They also look for bulls with good scores for calving ease.
The 100-hectare unit is all down to permanent pasture, which is regularly reseeded. David aims to reseed between 15 and 20 hectares each year. “This helps to improve the herd’s milk yield from forage, which is currently about 4,000 litres, and we’re looking to increase this to maximise our use of home-grown feed.” A further 30 hectares is rented, 15 of which is down to grass, and the remainder is used for maize, which David trialled for the first time in 2021. He was encouraged by the results, achieving 42 tonnes per hectare at 11.5 ME, 33% DM and 33% starch, after sowing the crop under plastic. They have grown maize again this year and are expecting to achieve similar results.
Cows are fed a TMR comprising grass and maize silage, 2.5kg of protein blend, plus vitamins and minerals. This supports maintenance plus 28 litres, and individual cows are topped up to yield, through the robots, with an 18% protein concentrate, and through out-of-parlour feeders with a 20% protein cake.
Since introducing the robotic system, the Luxtons haven’t looked back. “The performance of the herd has already improved and this is continuing – we know there’s plenty more to come,” says David. “This system has allowed us to be more proactive and focus on other areas of management that we are keen to improve. We have now set up a business that we run rather than one that runs us. And we are able to stay ahead of the game with decision making and are creating a better working environment for everyone.”