Good grassland management equals consistent and successful cow traffic in a robotic milking system.

That was one of the key take-home messages from DeLaval’s robotic milking open day in Co. Cork last week.

Father-and-son team Seamus and James Bourke opened up their farm outside Mallow in Co. Cork to the public as part of the open day on Thursday, June 23.

Glorious weather conditions provided the perfect day for an open day, although like most farmers in the country, a good dash of rain was what was wanted to get grass growing again – and that has been delivered since then.

In early 2021, Seamus and James installed two DeLaval VMS V300 robots to milk their herd of cows, having previously milked in a 12-unit parlour.

At the open day, organised by DeLaval, attendees saw the two robotic-milking machines in action on the 125-cow farm.

Attendees were also able to talk to experts from DeLaval about everything a robot has to offer and also, importantly, on managing grass in order to successfully operate a robotic milking system.

Grassland management

John Shortall of DeLaval put it like this: “Good grassland management equals consistent and successful cow traffic.”

Speaking to Agriland about the factors involved in a successful ABC grazing system, John said: “It’s a challenge, it does take cows and farmers time to get used to a robotic-milking system and there’s no point saying that it doesn’t.

“But, like anything, once you get used to it and it all starts coming together, it works.

“Grassland management within such a system is probably one of the bigger learning curves.

“You have to be open minded and be willing to try out new things and if something doesn’t work, look at where it can be improved on or tweaked in order for it to work which all farmers do.

“So it does take time to get used to. The cows will get used to it quick enough and once it’s working and cows get the swing of it, you will find it all comes together.

“The most important part of it to understand and to get to grips with is the grass allocation side of it and how much grass to give the cows.”

“A robot will milk the cows when they come in but it’s getting them in that can be the tricky part of it at the beginning,” John continued.

“So attention to detail is key, developing an understanding of how much grass is in the field first of all and how much you need to allocate to the cows.

“If you have your three ‘mini platforms’ as I do call them, you’re not going to be giving an equal amount of grass in each section. You’ll allocate more during the day and less in the evening and the smallest amount at night and to keep them close to the yard at night if possible.

“You don’t want to be sending cows to the furthest point of the farm into a big cover of grass at night-time, because they won’t walk to come back.

“Cows are naturally slower to move at night-time and that’s why you would allocate less then in order to keep them moving.”

Cow traffic

“You have to be on top on your grass in order for the system to run smoothly and to get cows moving,” said John.

“Getting into the right grass covers is a key factor in a successful A,B,C grazing system. Once covers get too strong and cows are grazing them, they will become slower to move.

“Quality grass keeps the cows moving and the milk yields up. Ideally, targeting pre-grazing covers of 1,200-1,500kg/DM (dry matter) and grazing down to a post-grazing height of 4cm would be the aim.

“The principles of grassland management are the same as in a conventional system except your managing three mini platforms rather than just one main one.

“Roadways and paddock entrances are also important to get right. In some cases you can have long, deep paddocks on some farms, where you potentially will be splitting them fields up with a few reels,” he added.

“So you many need to look at spur roadways or maybe you will just get away with back fencing with a reel.

“Also, do the gaps in paddocks need to be changed/adjusted, like from maybe having them in the middle of the paddocks to now having them in the corner of the field in the direction of the robot(s).

“It varies from farm to farm, with regards if major or minor work needs to be carried out in terms of roadways and the layout of paddocks.

“Here on the Bourke’s farm they put in a third roadway, so that had to be done. But, when it comes to smaller stuff, it’s worth while trialing and testing different things and seeing what works on your farm.

“In terms of cows walking, it’s important to alternate how far they are walking on a given day. Just say in they are in block B and they have a 1.5km walk ahead of them, then keep closer to the yard for their next break of grass or before that long walk.

“Try have it that they have a long walk, then a short walk then a long walk again, if at all possible. You will have to go far distances on farms to get to some paddocks and that will sometimes be unavoidable.

“Some will take these paddocks that are a distance away out of the platform as bales but in September or October that might not be an option and instead will have to be grazed and so then alternating the distances cows have to walk will become even more important.

“Going back to my previous point, all the principles are the exact same as a conventional system only your managing three mini grazing platforms rather than one main one.”

It’s doable

“You don’t have to go tearing up the place, making huge changes to the grazing platform,” John continued.

“Every farm will have to put in some infrastructure, be it a main roadway, a spur roadway and maybe a few small other things like changing entrances to paddocks or putting in troughs but it’s never anything massive that’s going to see the farm change in a big way.”