Dairy farmer on choice between sourcing more labour or investing in infrastructure when expanding

As labour shortages emerge as a big issue for the dairy sector, more milk producers are turning to technology to ease the burden of expansion

John Phelan working the new digital control in the milking parlour on his farm in Inchorourke, south Tipperary. Photo: Roger Jones
John Phelan working the new digital control in the milking parlour on his farm in Inchorourke, south Tipperary. Photo: Roger Jones

Louise Hogan

Many dairy farmers are turning to technology to ease their daily workload after seeing their hours in the milking parlour and calving sheds grow this spring.

New innovations are being unveiled to aid labour efficiency as some farmers dealing with rising cow numbers turn to everything from aids such as backing gates to hi-tech heat detection collars to help deal with the expansion.

Like many, John Phelan was looking at long hours in the parlour - it was frustrating on a daily basis as he faced three hours in the morning and another two-and-a-half in the evening to milk his 165-cow herd.

"I live six or seven miles away from the farm and I wasn't getting home at all," said the Tipperary man. "We've a three-year-old girl and I wasn't getting to see her and before you know it she'll be 13."

The farm at Inchorourke, just two miles from Urlingford, had grown from a 40-cow herd since his late father Michael, mother Mary and himself had went into partnership in 2003.

Yet, the numbers had far surpassed the infrastructure in place on the fragmented farm.

For John the time had come to either source more labour or move towards investing in technology and infrastructure.

"I wanted it to be a one-man operation. I didn't want to have to hire someone to have to milk beside me," he said. John pointed out labour was still essential for covering milkings but they did not want to have to hire two people if they wanted a day away from the farm.

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"It is also easier to attract people in when you have a hi-tech parlour," he said. "I felt looking to the future labour will be an issue." John is operating a fragmented holding, with a 42ha milking platform at the base, and 18ha that they zero graze and take silage cuts off just a mile from the house.

A further 50ac located around seven miles away has been turned into an outfarm for the younger stock.

"Cow flow was the problem. It was a nightmare. There was no meal feeding in the parlour and it was hard to get them in and out with the numbers. The yards were too small - it was torture," he said.

After talking about it for a year, he decided the double- up parlour fitted best as they did not want to have to bring the cows across the road for milking.

John said he contacted David Pearson from Pearson Milking Technology based in Athy, Co Kildare, and explained he wanted a "one-man operation". "I wouldn't be building again so I wanted it all to go in from day one," he said.

"When I was talking to David he explained because you are on your own the Auto ID tag would help and I might as well do the heat detection as well. The tag was twice the price but it takes out some of the observation work," he said.

John is now in a partnership with his mother Mary and wife Lisa which doubled the maximum eligible investment to €160,000.

"I focused the grant on the milking machine and not on the building work as I wouldn't have had the planning permission in time for the application," he said, adding he opted to do a lot of the concrete and physical building work himself.

"I only got word that I'd been approved on December 10 last and the cows were due to calve around January 15."

He said they pushed forward with the building and installation works. "I had an eight-unit mobile out in the yard milking until February 14 and I was only milking once a day as it took five hours. I don't mind coming home in the morning to milk anymore, I don't have to leave the pit. It is a lot less stressful on the cow and operator."

He opted for a 16-a-side, double-up with a rapid exit, which also used the ProFarm management system. The costs for the parlour were €6,000 a unit, while the smart tags come in at €95, with the costs varying depending on the level of spec opted for.

John explained the rapid exit was designed to speed up the movement through the parlour while feeding.


"You push a button and the whole unit lifts up and the 16 walk straight up - the cow is out in 20 seconds," he said. "It took them about two weeks to adapt - I was letting them in four at a time at first."

John said he's still a newbie on the software and has yet to fully get to grips with all the technology. However, the management system will use all the information from the collars and milking machine and he'll be able to access it on his phone or computer.

The software can be set up to deliver feed based on their lactation stage or requirements.

"I've a Kingswood programme here on the farm as well. When a cow calves it will automatically go to the milking machine and you can dump her then for four or five days," he said. "It will all work in sync and it will come up how many days she has calved and it will tell she is due a heat in 21 days."

The i100 keypad will provide control from the parlour over the feeding, drafting and gates. John said it allows him to highlight low milk yields or dump the milk for cows where required. "It can all be programmed before milking and if you want to draft a cow you can do it before milking," he said.

"It will flag up when they are being dumped, if she is in heat and the calendar dates." In addition, he decided to get the electronic milk meters.

John explained he also opted for a drafting system that will allow him direct the cows through a footbath when required, or into a pen for AI or veterinary attention. "If you wanted to pull something for hoof paring - it would be much easier when you are on your own," he said, adding he still has to install the pens.

He opted for a smart tag monitoring system that means he can monitor the herd and assess heat detection, feeding time and time spent grazing.

"I was able to AI them earlier as the computer would be telling me that she was bulling for the next six or seven hours," he said. "So far I definitely have less repeats than last year."

John said he sees the whole suite of technology as a package but the heat detection collars have proved beneficial.

"The breeding season is the most important time of the year," he said. "A lot of people might put in half of what I have put in but I feel it is done and dusted now and the repayments are set up with the banks."

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