'The cows got used to the robotic milking a lot quicker than I did' - the change over to robotic milking for this 100 cow herd

Donal Casey
Donal Casey

Martin Ryan

"The cows got used to it a lot quicker than I did - it was simply amazing how easily they adapted," said Mary Casey on the change over to robotic milking for a 100 cow herd.

The two-unit Lely Robotic Automated Milking Units operate on the farm near New Inn in South Tipperary.

Mary's husband, Donal (pictured), runs a construction contracting business, but dairying is in the blood of his Cork-born wife and she says switching to robotic milking has made a huge difference to her daily work load on the farm.

"My biggest job each day is changing the (paddock) fencing for the cows, because the incentive for them to move is getting fresh grass every eight hours.

"I was a bit worried in the beginning as to how the cows would take to it and what would happen if something went wrong. It took me a lot longer to get used to not having to worry about it than for the cows to adapt. The way the cows adapted was just amazing," said Mary.

Her husband Donal added: "The workload with 100 cows on the robotic is a lot less than 64 cows was with the conventional system. It does make the job a lot easier."

Robotic milking has reduced the need to be present for the dairy milking routine.
Robotic milking has reduced the need to be present for the dairy milking routine.

Mary reckoned: "It has reduced the work load by at least three hours per day."

She concedes that robotic systems are more expensive to install, and service and operational costs are higher than for conventional systems.

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However, major breakdowns are now the exception and both day-to-day performance and reliability has become very satisfactory.

Installation costs

Waterford farmer Ken Murphy with his Lely Astronaut robotic milking system. Photo: Sean Byrne.
Waterford farmer Ken Murphy with his Lely Astronaut robotic milking system. Photo: Sean Byrne.

Installation of a single unit costs in the region of €125,000, with a two unit system usually installed for a little over €200,000. Service contacts run at around €2,000/unit per annum and electricity can cost up to 2.2c/1.

Jordan Molloy of Lely explained that one unit may be sufficient for up to 90 cows depending on yield, but most farmers milking more than 80 cows should be considering a two unit system.

"The hardware of the system is pretty much perfected now and I don't see many further changes coming. The software is constantly being further developed and we upgrade the software in the system regularly," she said.

"On most farms the quarterly service under the contract is sufficient for maintenance. Service call-outs in between are rare enough now. For something small we can usually give instruction to the farmer over the phone."

Jordan said that the experience with the introduction of the robotic systems now is that most cows adapt to it very quickly and the change over is easier for the animals than for the farmer.

It was generally agreed that the robotic system is more capital demanding for the farmer who wants to expand the system for bigger throughput at a later stage unless adequate provision is made at the initial planning stage.

On the plus side, promoters of the robotic system claim that the option for the cow to choose the frequency of milking can contribute to increased yield.

Investment needed on dairy farms

The majority of dairy farmers - at least three in every four - will be faced with considerable investment in updating or expanding facilities within the next few years, said Teagasc area manager Donal Mullane.

His concern is that "very many of them could make costly mistakes" unless they put adequate thought into what is best suited to their particular needs and financial situation "both of which will vary a lot from farm to farm".

"The Tipperary advisors and myself have been discussing the capital investment on dairy farms for some time," he said, adding they feel farmers must carry out significant investigation before making their decision.

"The background is an expanding dairy industry and almost every dairy farmer either has, or will have to, spend some money on facilities. With that in mind we don't want to see people making mistakes which at the end of the day could be very costly," he added.

Brian Prendergast, Lely area sales manager, south west region, told the Farming Independent that sales of robotic milking systems in Ireland are up 70pc on 2016. "Ireland is now the largest market for our robotic milking systems in Europe," he said.

There is now a lead time of up to six months for supply from the placing of the order with the Lely European production plant in Holland because of the demand.

"Farmers are adopting to robotics more easily, and the systems are more reliable because the guesswork is gone. A lot of farmers are going robotic because of the labour saving.

"Most of the farmers are including heat detection and SCC monitoring in their systems but they are not anxious to overspend and more or less installing what is considered necessary," said Mr Prendergast.

The number of robotic milking systems installed by the company in Ireland and the UK has now passed 1,500 units and sales have grown rapidly since the abolition of EU milk quotas

Meanwhile, Donal Mullane cautioned: "The biggest mistake a farmer can make is to put in a system that they find out afterwards is not suited to their particular situation, be that the type of unit, the size of the unit, or the location of the unit on their farm. Building the dairy unit in the wrong place can become a big issue on some farms.

"We are asking farmers to consider where they plan to be in five to 10 years and make their decision to fit in with that."

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