Farm Ireland

Saturday 17 March 2018

Dairy robots deliver big time savings but costs remain high

Aidan Power speaking at last week's meeting on his Co Tipperary farm
Aidan Power speaking at last week's meeting on his Co Tipperary farm

Jamie Ball

Robots improve quality of life on a typical dairy farm, but at an annual cost of up to €9,000 compared to a standard milking parlour, according to the preliminary findings from Teagasc.

The automated system has the capacity to reduce labour requirements by a third, saving the dairy farmer up to 3.5 hours daily. However, the major drawback is the initial capital investment and the running costs, both of which can be almost double the basic conventional system.

The findings of the ongoing Teagasc trial were presented by Cathriona Foley and John Shortall to a large gathering of farmers at the Irish Grassland Association meeting on the farm of Aidan and Anne Power, Latteragh, Templederry, North Tipperary.

Data compiled during the study found that robotic systems use 68pc more electricity per litre of milk than conventional systems, at 72kw/annum compared to 42kw/annum. Consumables cost up to 60pc more, while service costs were doubled.

The analysis has been based on a 140 cow herd, comparing two robotic units to a 20 unit conventional herringbone system with automatic cluster removers (ACRs).

The researchers highlighted how competitive the robotic system was when compared with a high-tech 20-unit herringbone milking system, where the difference in cost was marginal.

"The running costs for the high-spec parlours are high due to greater energy consumption and higher servicing costs than the medium-spec parlour even though the labour input is the same. When the increased repayments are factored in, there is not much difference between the high-spec parlour and the robots. But there is a big difference between the robot and the medium-spec parlour," concluded Mr Shortall.

The purchasing cost for the two robots in the Teagasc research was €239,000, compared to installing a medium-spec 20-unit herringbone with ACRs for €130,000. The high-tech 20-unit herringbone was priced at €195,000, with all the costs for building included.

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All the capital expenses were spread over 10 years at 5pc interest, while labour was costed at €12.50 per hour.

The research also found that the robot system required the farmer to spend an extra 30 minutes/day attending to fences on the pasture base.

However, the host farmers have no regrets about their investment.

They are milking 93 spring calving cows on a milking base of 38ha of the total farm area of 46ha and are planning to increase the herd to 120 cows. They installed the first Lely robot three years ago and the second shortly after "because we are not getting younger" and wanted the ease it delivered.

The first year was "challenging" training the cows to adapt to the new system, but Mr Power said that the system is "doing all I expected" over the last two years. He emphasised the need "to be really calm and patient" training heifers. Sometimes he resorted to bringing the cow and her calf to the robot to get the heifer to relax.

The switch to robots increased Aidan Power's average yield by over 1,000l to 6,560l in 2014. The €125 EBI herd is on track to increase milk solids again this year to 580kg/cow from 1t of concentrate.

The elimination of lameness and reduction in mastitis is partly attributed to the fact that two-thirds of the herd choses to milk three times-a-day at peak, with around 5pc changing to once-a-day presently.

Automated milking systems save 3.5 hours work daily but cost an extra €9,000 per annum

Indo Farming