One of the largest VMS V300 robotic milking systems in Europe has been installed on a Co Waterford estate.
The five-unit Delaval milking system, designed to automate the milking of up to 400 cows on Tintur Farm is one of the first of its kind to be commissioned on an Irish dairy farm.
Linked to cloud-based computer technology, installed on the farm by World Wide Sires, each cow in the herd is individually monitored and controlled every minute of the day by the central computer base, providing an advanced data of information.
Tintur Dairy Farm at the base of the Knockmealdown Mountain close to Mount Melleray Abbey, is set on 330 acres of the nearly 1,000-acre Cappoquin Estate, owned by the Keane family, with additional land in fruit growing, forestry and other enterprises.
After spending eight years in Saudi Arabia, where he managed a 5,000 cow dairy herd in the desert averaging 30,500 lt, Northern Ireland born Roger Barkley was appointed manager to the Cappoquin farm in 2007.
There were 200 cows on the farm with an average cell count of 400,000 from which 1.3ml of milk was sold annually. The herd was increased to 246 cows by 2018 with 2.3m litres of milk being sold.
A year ago the decision was taken to replace the 32 x 32 low line conventional milking system with the DeLaval VMS300 five unit robotic and the unit went into operation last October.
"We chose robotic milking because labour was our new quota and with the lack of skilled, reliable help we couldn't get the manpower to milk cows the third time (in the 24 hours) despite the cows' potential," explained Roger.
"Myself plus one labour unit is now doing the work that previously required three full labour units plus some part-time labour," he told a gathering of nearly 300 farmers to which the new system was showcased last week. He admitted that the capital cost of the new system was "substantial", but everyone was very tight-lipped on the total outlay for the conversion.
Roger preferred to point out that "spread over 10 years it is cost efficient".
The herd is predominantly Holstein and pedigree since 2013 with the target to sell over 9,600 l/cow this year, at 765kg solids achievable and divided into high and lower yielders with 117 cows yielding an average of 49 kg and 110 cows at an average of 27 kg of milk daily.
It is planned to have 255 cows on the robots this summer and by Christmas the intention is to have 285 cows milking and 320 cows on the farm with the plan to go to 285 cows milking 365 days in the year.
"The first four days was a bit of hardship. The biggest problem was not to get the cows to go into the robots but to get them used to the drafting gates. It took them a little while to get them used to that," said Roger of the change over to robotic.
"In four or five days they were going into the robots on their own and in a week they were doing the whole thing themselves," he added.
"The cows actually took to the robot system faster than the people. The staff were used to coming in, feeding and milking the cows... The cows had their routine and we had ours but they (the cows) took to the new routine a lot faster and easier than we did.
"Since installing VMS V300 we can milk the cows to suit their production. Feet and fertility have improved, feed is being better utilised with the help of the BCS camera and the cows are much more relaxed and chilled," said Roger.
Morgan Sheehy, ruminant director, Devenish, advised the farmers that the zero grazing system on the Tintur Farm may not be the best choice for every farm and "you have to look at the system that is best suited to you" to obtain the optimum performance and achieve the desired cow condition at any particular time of the season with the concentrate intake related to production.
Stuart Fulton of DeLaval said that the usual ratio of cows to robotic milking units is 30-35 cows, but the system on the Tintur Farm is very comfortably handling 65 cows per unit "and we are looking to 75 cows per robot with this system".
"A robotic system will only do what you tell it to do. Tell it what to do and then don't forget to check up (via computer) to see that it has been done, the same as you should be doing with labour doing the job," he said.
DeLaval describes the VMS System as making dairy farming more accurate and more profitable.
"It is a system that allows each cow, even each teat to be treated individually and to customise the process to individual needs, creating a better place for workers, cows and farm families," it said.
The automated 'smart gate' system and cloud-based technology linking each cow individually to the central computer control is the cornerstone to the operations on Tintur Farm.
Conor Morley, World Wide Sires, explained that the 'smart gate' system on the farm is no different in principle to the drafting structure currently in use on thousands of dairy farms.
World Wide Sires advises on the breeding policy and sires to be used on the farm and also provided the special ear tag controlled computer system.
However, the level of advanced technological control is where the farm is different to many others.
"The cow traffic system that is in operation on the farm is getting fairly popular now in Ireland," he told the visiting farmers.
However, the advance in auto control which has been employed is at the upper end of what is available and presently in use on the majority of Irish dairy farms.
Two separate batches of cows, high yielding and low yielding, are individually identified by the system and while mixing for feeding and milking are each directed back to their own group.
"It is called the smart gate system because each cow is plugged into the computer all of the time and the system knows which cow needs to be milked and which don't. When they pass through the gates the cows that need to be milked are picked out to go to the robot, are milked and directed by the gate system back to their own group whether they are a high yielder or a low yielder," he said.
"We can have the two groups mixed when they go through the robots and sent back to their own group again without any human intervention whatever. It is called feed first because the cows feed first and can feed as often as they like," he went on.
"When they are going back to their cubicle they pass back through an automatic body condition score camera, and automatic fat, a 3D camera which scans the back of the cow to tell what condition score she is which is fed to the computer and if a cow is getting too fat her feed intake level can be changed," said Conor (inset) explaining the special ear tag which is constantly transmitting the information from the each cow.
"Information is only of benefit if you can make use of that information. A lot of farmers weigh cows but the question is what body condition score is right for that cow. The body condition score puts them all on a level playing field," he said.
"The condition score tells you where the cow should be so you can get that cow into the correct condition score where you want her to be," he added.
"This system may be a wee bit ahead of its time technology wise, because everybody knows about body condition scoring and most farmers are able to do it themselves but this technology will do it for them and they have it all on the system to keep the body condition right all of the time," he added in relation to just one element on the auto system aiding management of the herd.