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Technology and data are key to new unit’s success (Nov/Dec 23)

Advances in robotic technology prompted one Scotland-based dairy business to switch from beef to dairy production – and with considerable success. We spoke to them to find out more.


TEXT CLEMMIE GLEESON



Access to reliable data and forecasting for the Templeton family’s Holstein herd at Carslae Farm has been crucial to understanding the dynamics of the herd and its feeding strategy.


The herd was founded in December 2020 on a greenfield site on their 365-hectare unit, based near Newton Stewart. Managed by David Templeton, his wife Kay and his brother Robert, the farm had been home to 340 Limousincross suckler cows and 780 cross-bred ewes. The heavy land was unsuitable for intensive beef production, but did excel in producing high-quality silage and grass, and the family believed that dairying was the way forward. “We’d always been interested in dairying, but to be honest we didn’t fancy milking cows twice a day,” admits David. But the developments he’d seen in robotic milking led him to seriously consider it. “We started asking questions, particularly about whether we would be able to get a milk contract, and were assured it was possible to make the switch.”


First batch


So, by early 2020, plans were underway for the dairy unit. This included a 300-cow cubicle shed with space for five Lely A5 Astronauts. After numerous COVID-19- related delays, the Templetons began milking in early December 2020, with their first batch of 115 cows (plus 40 dry cows), which they bought from a local herd. “The cows came from a unit with traditional housing and a conventional parlour, but they took to our new set-up, with robots and cubicles with water mattresses, really well,” says David.


A further 60 in-calf heifers arrived in January 2021 and then more heifers were purchased, which pushed milking-cow numbers up to 250 head. “We had planned to buy a few more by now, but falling milk prices has delayed those plans,” he says.


“But we have enough home-bred heifers coming through to maintain numbers at around 270. It’s a young herd made up of mostly first, second and third calvers,” adds Robert. “So many are not up to their full potential yet.” The farm’s contract with First Milk rewards fat and protein and this influences breeding decisions. The family also put emphasis on teat placement and stature to breed cows that suit the robots.


They have started using genomic testing to help select the best females to breed replacements from. Kay takes the lead on breeding decisions and uses a process with Genus that determines the top three goals and recommends the best sires to use, accordingly.


Automated system: Kay checks herd data using robotic technology


Robotic route


The family has no regrets about taking the robotic route. The technology works well with few problems. And herd nutrition is also doing what ForFarmers’ Martin Helliwell promised. “The concentrate had to produce the goods – both yields and solids – and this continues to increase as the heifers and cows mature,” says David. Martin adds that, initially, it was impossible to tell what the cows’ potential was. “We started with a target of 30 litres but they cleared that within a week. Yields have steadily increased since late 2020 to 37 litres per cow per day. Herd average yield is 11,800 litres, at 4.25% butterfat and 3.54% protein.


Although volume has increased, the ration itself has stayed the same since day one, which is better for rumen efficiency. ForFarmers’ Optifeed programme uses dry NIR forage analysis as a starting point for developing the ration, and David and Martin stay in regular contact to discuss any tweaks needed according to changes in forage analysis.


The remit was to keep the ration simple, so home grown silage is fed with a blend, minerals and a mycotoxin binder. It is mixed together, in a wagon, with some water to homogenise it and prevent sorting. A Lely Juno feed-pushing robot ensures fresh TMR is always kept within the cows’ reach. Concentrate is also fed through the robots according to yield and lactation stage.


All dry cows are fed the same silage mixed with straw, as well as ForFarmers’ Translac Advance, with its calcium-binding technology, during the three weeks before calving. The Templetons are pleased with the lack of transition-cow problems and rarely see retained placentas, milk fevers or other issues associated with calving and early lactation.


ForFarmers’ OptiRobot system gives Martin access to data from the Lely milking robots remotely. “It gives us a little more confidence knowing that Martin can regularly check that the herd is heading in the right direction,” says David, adding that Kingshay Dairy Manager is also used to calculate and forecast margins.


Better planning


“Feeding is the same all year round, but this system helps with planning and allows us to spot periods when milk production may be low,” adds Martin. “The feeding system stays the same, but without knowing this we could be in a position where in January or February, for example, we think something is wrong because milk production falls.”


The system also means that the family can plan in terms of cash flow as well as continue to deliver the best nutrition possible. “Pre-empting how the dynamics of the herd will change is crucial to the feeding strategy. Modelling is an important part of the jigsaw. If you leave out a piece then the picture isn’t complete.”

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