Farm Ireland

Friday 15 December 2017

'It's like having the same relief milker all the time'

Brendan Hayes with his sons Evan and Gavin.
Brendan Hayes with his sons Evan and Gavin.

"Investing in a robotic milking system gets you the most reliable employee you can imagine."

That's how Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary dairy farmer and Glanbia board member Brendan Hayes summed up his experience of robotic milking 10 months after taking the plunge.

The Hayes' family installed two Lely Astronaut A4 robots on their farm last spring at a total investment of around €200,000. Their herd comprises 120 cows, mostly spring calving and made up mainly of Friesians with a few Swiss Crosses.

"The robot is there to milk for you 24/7, it never rings in sick and it's fully trained to prepare the cow for attaching and detaching the clusters," Mr Hayes explains. "It's like having the same relief milker all the time because the robots get to know each cow really well.

"There's consistency, with everything from milk yield to fat and protein content, somatic cell count for each teat to heat detection and rumination activity measured to allow the farmer to make the key decisions on herd management."

Was the system hard for the cows to get used to? "It takes about a week to 10 days to have 99pc of the herd fully trained in," says Mr Hayes. "For the first few days you literally have to push the cows in because they don't know what's going on. It's the same with a new heifer.

"But they learn the routine incredibly quickly; they associate being milked with the reward of concentrates or fresh grazing paddocks if you use the ABC grazing system, which we do. I've noticed that the cows have become much more docile around humans since adopting the robotic system, probably because there is no more hunting them in the mornings and evenings.

"This is an interesting trait that a lot of my discussion group friends using robotic milking have also picked up on."

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The Hayes' robotic milking system is approaching the top end of the specification level. They added the Lely heat detection system to their Astronaut A4 milking robots.

This clever feature, which adds about €15k to the cost of the overall package, measures the cow's general movement and ruminating activity. Ruminating activity usually falls off when a cow comes into heat or when she is ill, while movement increases as she comes into heat and becomes restless.


This activity measurement is done from the tag that each cow wears around her neck. The tag is bursting with all sorts of data, and includes an acceleration sensor, microprocessor and memory that enable the recording of a general activity index. The index quantifies all of the cow's movements like walking, running, lying down, standing up and head movements.

"If I see a sudden reduction in rumination activity with an increase in physical activity compared to a given cow's baseline that clearly indicates that the cow is in heat," explained Mr Hayes.

"I don't have to be on the farm to see that data - I can be in a different country and pick it up on my iPhone. The data gives me a crucial early signal so I can take appropriate action; be it isolating the cow for insemination, increasing the forage level in the diet or calling the vet if the cow is unwell."

South Tipperary is quickly turning into a bit of a hot spot for robotic milking. Along with the Hayes' operation, five other farms within a short distance have opted to install a Lely robot over the last two years.

In fact, the six farmers involved formed a discussion group so that they are able to compare figures from the start, and generally share tips on how to make the switch to robotic milking as smooth as possible. "The six of us came together a few years ago when we first started looking at robotic milking," says Brendan Hayes.

"We made a series of farm visits, both in Ireland and abroad, to farms who had been running a robotic milking system for a few years and knew the ins and outs of it. We wanted to know everything, to dispel every fear before any of us signed up to it. Would the cows ever get used to it? Does the system work equally well for grass fed cows and those housed indoors? What are the costs and the payback involved? What about electricity costs?

"My advice to farmers thinking about installing a robot would be the same; visit 10 or 12 different farms who already have the system and then make your mind up armed with all the information you need."

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