Lely Center Mitchelstown is hosting two open days in Co. Cork on August 27 and 29, on the farms of Tom Stack in Mallow and Colm O Donovan in Kinsale.

They were the first farmers in the south of Ireland to install the new Lely Astronaut A5 robotic milking system in spring 2019.

Working full time off farm and milking cows

Tom Stack explains his switch to robotic milking.

I took over the home farm in 2013 with the intention of getting back in to dairy cows. My aim was to build up to 60 cows over five years but we were already milking 64 cows by year three and last year we were up to 92.

The increasing workload became too much with both Stephanie and I also working off farm and we had no family time. Our options were a bigger parlour or robots, and a trip to Holland in 2017 opened our eyes to the possibilities with robotic milking.

We met farmers who were working off farm full time and we could really relate to how they were managing their operations. The flexibility of the whole system and labour saving was key.

We fitted a calf feeder in spring 2018, which also changed our view on automation – the fact that the calves took to it so well. They could fend for themselves and we saw the reduction in labour.

Minimal building work

All we did here was take out 12 cubicles and convert a section of the cubicle shed. The fact that our calving unit could be adapted as a drafting area was a compact and simple solution.

The tank was already in place and we fitted the central unit and compressor in to the existing dairy.

Start up and ABC grazing

We started with 50 cows on February 21 and grass management is key. We are doing a rotation plan on three blocks versus one block.

They get cute to the gate change times and then congregate around the Grazeway – they know there is fresh grass at the other side. Grass utilisation is better and we have more bales in stock this year than we have ever had.

Lely Astronaut A5

We are delighted the cows have adapted so well. They are much calmer as they can come and go themselves.

The machine is very quiet and the monitor is user friendly; it guides you step by step and the information you get each milking is phenomenal.

T4C (time for cows) is excellent and we review the health report daily. It’s unreal how early it can identify potential mastitis cases; we are dealing with the problem much earlier and treatment has been significantly reduced.

What are the key change since switching to robotic milking?

Freedom and flexibility are the key to the whole set up. We are no longer tied to specific milking times, and have the freedom to do jobs when it suits.

The cows do their own thing and we have more time now for the normal family activities while still being able to manage the farm.

Future plan

I would like 80 cows milking 8,000L a year. T4C has so much information; it definitely helps to fine tune and adapt the herd to where I want it to go. I will focus more on the transition period this year, to ensure I give the cows the best possible start next season.

Where to go?

Tom Stack and his family, along with Lely Center Mitchelstown, invite you to come and see their new Lely Astronaut A5 in operation with their ABC grazing platform, on Tuesday, August 27, from 11:00am to 4:00pm in Ironmimes, Mallow, North Cork.

The farm will be signposted from: Mallow town, Newtwopothouse, Doneraile and the main N20 and N72 roads (Eircode: P51 DHE9).

For further details please call Willie Walsh, of Lely Center Mitchelstown, on: 087-3087505.

The first Lely Astronaut A5 installed in Cork

Colm O Donovan explains his switch to robotic milking.

Having worked alongside my uncle Tadgh for a number of years, I took on the farm in 2017. We were milking 68 cows through an outdated herringbone parlour so my first priority was upgrading it.

After visiting local robot farms I realised that you would not have to invest a whole pile in new buildings. Our parlour and collecting yard were already centrally located with a slatted tank in place.

Removing a few old buildings and putting a new shed over the slatted tank would make installation straightforward and cost effective. A new parlour would have needed a much bigger investment and building footprint.

Labour was also a key factor and it was getting harder to find relief-milking staff.

Start up and ABC grazing

Initially, about 75% of cows got some meal through the robot on training mode. We started at the end of January and we calved down all cows on to the system.

It was tough going for the first few months as we were all getting used to the robot. We have three by eight-hour grazing blocks and change the wire three times-a-day.

Cows quickly figure out the walking side of it once they are used to the Lely Grazeway. The change from the herd mentality to the individual cow is very noticeable when you stop in the lane on the tractor; instead of running away they calmly pass you by.

Grass allocation is key and you can really see the progress as cows are coming in by themselves and all we have to do is move the strip wire.

Lely Astronaut A5

The interface is extremely user friendly and prompts you in the right direction. It’s ferociously straightforward to get a cow milking on the A5 and I was able to do it on my own without any experience.

Once the collar is on she’ll walk in and the machine will prompt you along. It almost feels like a computer game on the farming simulator.

T4C is very straightforward; the basics are very good, especially for routing cows automatically.

Cows in heat were showing up at the onset of heat. It gives them a score and after a few weeks I realised that you could wait until it was over 60-70% before inseminating.

I don’t believe I have missed any heats so far and I expect to go without the bull next year. The cell count monitoring is excellent, as it picks up the quarters infected very quickly. I have some high cell count cows and you can keep a great eye on them with cell count being measured every third milking.

Water supply

The plate cooler used to be flat out for two hours twice-a-day, but we now have less pressure on our water supply as the demand by cows and the robot is spread evenly throughout the day.

They used to come out of the parlour full of meal and would empty the water troughs immediately during hot weather. Now they are getting into the routine of drinking one at a time, taking the pressure off the system.

Drying off

In the past, I would have dryed off all cows by December 9, whereas now I will milk on the late calvers until January and get more out of the cows in the back end.

Due to flexibility of the system I expect to have a lot more cows reaching 305 days in lactation.

Future development of the farm

With a 100ac block we are tight on land for expansion. Heifers and silage ground are also on this area so I’m considering my options.

All the building work is done for a second robot and I have more time now to figure it out.

Where to go?

Colm O Donovan, along with Lely Center Mitchelstown, invites you to come and see his new Lely Astronaut A5 in operation with his ABC grazing platform, on Thursday, August 29, from 11:00am to 4:00pm in Ballynidon, Kinsale, Co. Cork.

The farm will be signposted from: the Kinsale Ballinspittle main road, Barellscross and from the Grotto in Ballinspittle (Eircode: P17A327).

For further details please call Brian Prendergast, of Lely Center Mitchelstown, on: 087-9326983.