Thursday 29 September 2016

Smart milking... thanks to a robotic milking system

Johnny O'Hanlon hasn't looked back since installing a robotic miking system

Published 04/05/2016 | 02:30

Kerry farmer, Johnny O'Hanlon was the first Irish farmer to install a DeLaval robotic system. He’s pictured here working with the Herd Navigator feature which is effectively a mini-lab on the farm giving 24hr advance warning of health issues with individual cows.
Kerry farmer, Johnny O'Hanlon was the first Irish farmer to install a DeLaval robotic system. He’s pictured here working with the Herd Navigator feature which is effectively a mini-lab on the farm giving 24hr advance warning of health issues with individual cows.

"It becomes very obvious, very quickly on a robotic system which cows are intelligent, and which ones aren't. That's what happens when your cows aren't herded around the place. My cows are free to make decisions, and it's amazing how big a gap there is between the smart ones and the not-so-smart ones," explains Kerry farmer, Johnny O'Hanlon.

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He invested in three DeLaval robots to milk the family's 150 pedigree Holsteins over two years ago. And the Ballyduff farmer has no regrets.

"Sure, the running costs might be higher than our old parlour, but they would have to be given that we are milking our cows more often. During the winter, we average 3.1 milkings per cow, while in the summer it drops to 2.4 per day," he says.

Johnny points out that cows are less likely to try to walk in from the fields during the night, and that the proximity of the robot during the winter helps maximise milking frequency.

"There are some cows at peak that will be milking five times a day, while others nearing dry-off will drop closer to once a day.

"There are limits that you can set so that the machine isn't going to start milking a cow if she has less than 10 litres to give for example. That ensures that the running costs stay economic," says O'Hanlon.

When asked if he has any concerns about the extra investment required to milk extra cows, the Kerryman insists that, if anything, he will be reducing cow numbers.

"In theory we could milk more cows per robot, but I like having the bit of extra capacity to allow heifers to choose when they want to get milked. The last thing that I want to see is cows queuing up at the machine to be milked. If anything I could see us reduce the number of cows that we milk because we're able to increase our output by increasing the yield per cow.

"We've increased yields by over 10pc already in the last year to 9,000 litres, but there's scope to aim for a lot higher. There are some cows in the herd already producing up to 16,000 litres per lactation, which is the equivalent of 60 litres per day at peak," he says.

While the type of cow that the Hanlon's Golden Hill herd is aiming to produce hasn't changed much since they switched to the robots, there are subtle differences in the bulls that they use.

"We would be selecting bulls from the likes of Dovea that have special indexes designed to suit robotic units.

"Some cows suit the robot better - it's a bit of an x-factor, but it is certainly related to how intelligent they are. But we would also be putting a bigger emphasis on feet and legs and udders than the EBI, because if you are asking the cow to walk into the robot four times a day, she needs to have the legs and feet to do it," he says.

Even though the furthest paddocks are 1.83km from the parlour, the O'Hanlons ensure that nearby paddocks follow the furthest ones to give the cows that are milking regularly a break.

'My discussion group is in Tasmania'

"My discussion group is in Tasmania - that's where most of the farms with similar systems to this that I've found on Twitter and Facebook are based. So that's what I'd use for information and new ideas," says Johnny O'Hanlon.

"We were always a pedigree Holstein herd, and with the way that Irish dairying has gone, we've become the odd-balls in the area. But that's ok," he grins.

Much of the accepted wisdom in Ireland on what constitutes a profitable dairy operation would suggest that the O'Hanlon herd is away with the birds.

Johnny has not been measuring grass and he doesn't know what his average meal usage is per cow. But he does know that it varies from 600-2,000kg, which is multiples of what most low-cost operators would be happy with.

In addition, the calving interval is closer to 380 days than 365, and the Kerry breeder is unsure how many services it takes to get his cows in calf. But the system makes sense for them.

"We are able to produce over 1.25 million litres of milk with no hired in labour - my parents still help out and we get in help when the pressure is on, but I like this system.

Workload

"The diet feeder is parked up from now until after the Ploughing Championships, so we are still trying to get the most out of grass. But the workload is fairly constant throughout the year, with 80pc of the herd calving in the spring.

Average milk solids per cow would be over 700kg, and average yield today is 36 litres at 3.75pc fat and 3.39pc protein.

"All the bull calves are sold at two and a half weeks at Castleisland mart for whatever I can get for them. We would also sell a load of animals for breeding every year, but they are usually exported to the UK now with the likes of David Clarke transport," he says.

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