Five-star cow accommodation has done so much more than improve cow comfort on one Shropshire-based unit. Health and productivity have both increased since milkers moved into their plush new pad.
TEXT RACHAEL PORTER
Just a quick glimpse of the new dairy housing and facilities at High Walton Farm in a Twitter post is enough to stop producers in their tracks. So it’s little wonder the resident milkers in the 240-cow herd, based near Ludlow, are regularly spotted in a deep slumber by farm manager Tom Carr.
“That was a rare sight in our previous set up. But now we often see cows fast asleep on their sides and ‘flat out’, and looking really relaxed,” he says. “The cows moved in to their new accommodation back in January, but it’s not something I’ll ever tire of seeing. It’s really rewarding to see that the investment and careful design and planning was worth it. The cows certainly appreciate our efforts.”
Planning was, indeed, key to the design and build of the new dairy facilities. “We knew that we’d only get to do this once and it needed to be done right,” adds Tom. He was tasked, with help from herdsman Ed Gwillam, with amalgamating the Earl of Plymouth’s two dairy herds – one based at High Walton and the other just a few miles away at Church Farm, located in the centre of a village and which was showing its age. “It wasn’t in the best place and it also needed updating.”
The estate, which comprises 2,500 hectares with dairy, beef, sheep, pig and arable enterprises – had three options for the dairy business: “Carry on as we were, exit dairying, or invest. I’m so pleased we opted for the third one. The new set up and cow performance has exceeded our expectations,” says Tom.
The two herds are now run as one in a highly automated and modern set up, leaving behind tired housing and arduous, old herringbone milking parlours.
The all-year-round calving herd is milked through four Lely A5 robots, linked to a GrazeWay gate to allow cows to go out to pasture. Winter feeding is carried out by a Lely Vector installation, which comprises a ‘kitchen’ where the ration is mixed, as well as a delivery and push-up system. “We set that up once a week, with all the feed required for the TMR, and the system does the rest,” explains Tom. Not only does this save on labour, but it also ensures fresh feed is in front of the cows 24 hours a day.
“We felt it was important to ‘future proof’ the herd when we made this considerable investment. Labour can be an issue, so a system that frees up labour for management – rather than relying on staff to carry out repetitive manual tasks – was high on our ‘wants’ list.”
No surprise then that the unit has a Lely Discovery scraper, which runs across the slatted floor areas. “We also have conventional automatic scraper systems on the passageways,” adds Tom. “And there are two Lely rotating cow brushes, which the cows love.”
It’s taken a while to build the new set up. “Work began in February 2020 and we hoped the cows would move in come Christmas that year. But the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to that. We’d just flattened the existing buildings at High Walton when the lockdown started. And then once builders were allowed back on site we struggled to source some building materials. “But we got there in the end and began milking through the robots in January 2021.”
He says the cows quickly adapted to the new set up and new system. “We planned to monitor the cows for 24 hours a day, working in shifts, for a month, just to make sure they were visiting the robots. But, just a week in, the cows had the hang of it and we’d dropped the night shift by week three. It’s taken us far longer than the cows to adjust to the new system. We’re still getting to grips with it. But that’s what we expected. It’s a big change.”
Gold standard beds: flexible partitions 'hug' the cows
Tom says one issue has been with switching from winter to spring diets – particularly once milkers were turned out to graze. “Adjusting the ration once cows are eating grass has been a challenge. The difficulty was in spring, when we turned the cows out and stopped feeding a TMR,” he explains. “We worked hard all spring and summer to manage grazing in our paddock-based system, and we’ve just about got the balance right now,” says Tom. “But it’s a new way of doing things, with the cow house and robot at the centre of the grazing platform, which consists of three large fields, each split into paddocks with five grazing ‘blocks’.”
The herd, which is currently averaging 7,500 litres at 4.4% butterfat and 3.6% protein, is fed a TMR during the winter comprising grass and maize silages and an 18% protein blend. This provides maintenance plus 24 litres. Milkers are then topped up to yield through the robots. Short cows with ‘low’ udders also need attention due to the switch to robotic milking. “We’ve been cross breeding with Jerseys and Montbeliardes for a few years. Some of the third and fourth lactation Jersey cross’ udders hang a little low for the robot arm to easily find and attach to the teats. So we will look to do some ‘corrective’ breeding here, to resolve the issue and make milking a little easier.”
That aside, the robots are working well. Back in January, visits to the robot averaged 3.1. At grazing that dropped to an average of 2.1 times a day. “But milk yield is up since January, partly due to more frequent milking and greater feeding accuracy and efficiency. Average daily milk yield is now between 25 and 26 litres, compared to 23 litres before the cows moved to the new system and set up,” says Tom.
And life is certainly easier on the cows in their new house. Hock condition and lameness have both improved considerably with the installation of 240 cubicles with flexible partitions that ‘hug’ the cow.
“Once we’d decided on the system and the building structure, our overriding focus was then on cow comfort,” says Tom. “We all agreed we wanted to walk into a shed where cows were either being milked, feeding or drinking, or lying down. Cows standing in passageways, or half in or out of cubicles, are a sign that something’s not right. I’m happy to report that we’ve never seen our cows so relaxed. It’s always been a quiet herd, but it’s even quieter now.”
Cow comfort – and its associated health and welfare – are increasingly important to meet accreditation schemes and milk-buyer requirements. “So, again, we wanted to be prepared and exceed expected standards.”
So gold-standard beds were installed. To accommodate both black-and-white and crossbred cows, beds are 1.6 metres long and 1.15 metres wide. CowCoon hybrid cubicles with flexible rails, and a 40mm-thick rubber mat to offer the same comfort as deep sand, support cows as they rest. “This flexibility increases cow comfort and prevents back injuries. But it doesn’t alter the width of the cubicle, so the cows lie in them as they should and the bed stays clean,” explains Wilson Agri’s Gareth Wilson. “And a Poly Pillow brisket barrier has also been added to the front of each cubicle, to allow the cow to stretch out without lying too far forwards. The ultimate aim is to allow the cow to express her natural lying behaviour, and to be confident when entering and exiting the cubicle. I think that’s something Tom and the team have achieved.”
Tom says he and herdsman Ed are certainly happy – just like the cows. “It’s so much more satisfying to manage the herd now, using this automated system with optimum cow comfort. We know cow welfare is tip top – just by looking at the herd. And improved cow performance and health is further proof that we’ve made good decisions and invested wisely.”