Dairy focus: Robots bring an ‘easier way of life’ in Co. Meath

In just five years this farm was transformed from a beef, sheep and tillage enterprise, to milking over 200 cows through three Lely astronaut A4 robots.

During the week, Michael Horgan, with his sons Ciaran and Enda, hosted one of Lely’s three information seminars to showcase their recent success in the dairy industry.

Michael and his sons are milking a herd of 187 cows just outside Nobber in Co. Meath, with plans to increase numbers to 210 cows this year.

On the day of the visit, production was excellent – the cows were producing 26L/cow at 4.77% butterfat and 3.5% protein, with a somatic cell count (SCC) of 67,000.

“When Enda finished college we decided to look at going into dairy. Myself, Enda and Dad went to Denmark to look at the robots because we wanted to see how they worked and to see what we were getting into.

“After we came home Dad said, I think we’ll go for robots, and it all went on from there,” explained Ciaran.

Getting started

In 2015, 80 heifers were calved on the farm.

In an effort to get up and running as quickly and cheaply as possible an old slatted shed – previously used to house beef cattle – was converted to accommodate the cows and the two robots.

“We kept costs to a minimum to get going; we built onto the old shed and used what we had,” explained Enda.

An extra bay was built onto the shed, which contained two timber structures for the robots. The robots were positioned in these structures, along with an office and the cows milked head-to-head.

They also installed 94 cubicles – by themselves – in an effort to keep costs down and get up and running quickly.

“The cubicle beds are suspended using concrete paling posts, with concrete blocks on the lower side to create a slope on the bed,” explained Ciaran.

There were no facilities to separate cows and the cows crossed over each other after exiting the robot to get out to graze.

Although starting off in this shed to begin with wasn’t an ideal situation; they knew it wasn’t permanent and it gave them a feel for what they wanted in a shed long term.

Today

In 2017, the construction of the new shed for the robots began.

“If we had gone and put up a new shed at the start, without milking cows here to begin with, it probably wouldn’t have worked out on paper at all,” said Enda.

The new shed includes 160 cubicles (three rows facing head-to-head) with feeding space all along each length of the shed. The passages feed down into a 20ft tank (two side-by-side 10ft deep tanks) with three robots positioned at the other side and space for a fourth.

The cows enter the robots just like customers queuing up at a check out. From there, they exit the robot and walk down along a passage on the other side and out into the grazeway separation system.

In the event of a cow having to be held for treatment or AI, she is drafted out by the robot into a separate yard.

At present, the cows are receiving treatment in a hoof pairing crate. However, there are plans for the construction of a herringbone crush with a pit for treating animals in the future.

The robot

At the start there were two robots on the farm; after the construction of the new shed these were moved over and a third robot was installed.

The robot system can monitor the cows on a number of things throughout the day. It can monitor the animals rumination pattern and, if anything unusual is detected, it will send a health alert to the farmer.

It also includes a feed-to-yield system and there is a facility to put in four different feeds if you so wish.

Each day, the robot will produce a full milk recording analysis for each cow. It can also detect mastitis two days before you would physically see it in the parlor – so, the farmer can get in early to treat the infection before it takes hold.

Additionally, if the cow is treated or she has just freshly calved, you can enter this data into the robot so it will divert the milk into milk separation buckets for disposal or use.

Milk for collection is pumped to a tank 80m away so that the milk tanker can pick up the milk easily, without passing over any cow passes or obstructing anything going on in the yard.

Grazing management

The Horgan’s operate an A, B, C grazing system for most of the year. This means that the cows are in each section for eight hours a day.

On the day of the visit – due to the poor weather conditions – the cows were out for 16 hours and in for eight hours, which means grazing in A and B and inside for C.

Whilst inside, Ciaran explained they were being “fed a mixture of wholecrop, silage, maize meal and minerals through a diet feeder”.

Some of the advantages of grazing with robots, Ciaran said, were: “They do less damage when at grass because the cows are coming in individually rather than all being pushed in together – or waiting at a gap in a big group to come in.

“We have had less problems with lameness too because cows are coming in at their ease.”

Another advantage with a robot system is you can have a much narrower roadway compared to when they are all coming in at once. The roadways on Horgan’s farm are 2m in width.

“A lot of our paddocks don’t have permanent fences and we use strip wires. This is very useful when we are allocating grass, because the cows can enter the paddock at multiple entrances.

“The difficulty is water; you have to have plenty of drinkers in the paddocks. We still have some to go in,” said Ciaran.

Benefits and challenges

“During the summer we start at 8:00am and are out of the yard by 5:00pm. It’s very easy to get away and there’s very minimal work to do once the fences are set up,” explained Ciaran.

The robots free up your time to do other jobs instead of milking and you’re not tied to being back at 4:00pm or 5:00pm in the evening to milk the cows.

“Farmers think you need a lot of infrastructure to get going, but there is not that much; we used what we had and it worked.”

Another problem Ciaran has seen with robots is “some farmers think you can walk out of the yard and leave them; you can, but only at certain times of the year”.

“After calving and breeding is over, yes, you can easily leave the yard and head off for a few hours during the day.

The first three-to-four months of the first year are the hardest, you have to have a lot of patience and it’s not easy.

“But once you have the cows trained it is much easier to train the heifers because they follow the cows,” Enda concluded.

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