Farm Ireland

Thursday 23 November 2017

Rise of the dairying robots

Robotic milking systems are beginning to win the confidence of Irish dairy farmers

The Lely A4 Astronaut system robot uses lasers to guide the clusters onto the teats.
The Lely A4 Astronaut system robot uses lasers to guide the clusters onto the teats.
A cow departs after milking. Lely say the system is now a viable option for all sizes of dairy farms, ranging from a 60-cow herd upwards.
Larry Banville (left) of Lely agents Donohoes of Enniscorthy, with Brendan Hayes.

If you haven't heard of someone who made the switch from manual to robotic milking you are living a sheltered life.

Put simply, the cows come to a milking robot two to three times per day, lured by the prospect of access to feed during the milking and/or fresh grass post milking.

What started out as a handful of farmers in Northern Ireland is now becoming a steady trickle of "robotic converts" across the island.

As is the human condition, usually news of the switch to the dark side is greeted with a good dollop of scepticism that stems mostly from a fear of the unknown. For good measure, there's often the accusations (invariably outside Mass of a Sunday morning) that the farmer in question must be either a) lazy, b) have more money than sense or c) both.

But is it lazy to want to increase labour productivity? Or to want to get a robot to do the milking work so that you can keep bringing in an off farm income? Or, as robotic milking specialists Lely claims is possible, to want to increase production by 10 to 15pc? The answer, of course, is no.

Proponents of robotic milking argue that the system allows farmers to control many factors on an individual cow basis; factors that cannot be controlled in a conventionally milked herd.

The likes of Lely, DeLaval and Fullwood Packo will argue that their robots allow farmers to focus on the cows that need him/her the most, and all without having to actually manually milk the cows twice a day.

Each of these manufacturers offer management programmes capable of showing a quick overview on the performance of the herd, along with a host of optional extras depending on how deep your pocket is.

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The Lely system

When it comes to robotic milking, the market leader in Ireland right now is the Lely Astronaut A4 robot.

Prices start at about €120,000 depending on specification level for a single robot set up that is capable of milking 60 or 70 cows three times per day.

The first robot is the most expensive to fit because it is like the mothership, featuring the main vacuum and cleaning system that is actually capable of supplying a second unit, if desired, as the herd grows.

For those who need it, the twin robot setup is where things get interesting in terms of payback efficiency.

This is because the second robot can be fitted for around €80,000, making for a total investment of around €200,000 but increasing the system capacity to a 140 cow herd milking three times per day at peak.

It is a self-contained system with a modular design that gives the option to expand.

Lely claims the A4 Astronaut robotic milking system is now a real option for all sizes of farms, ranging from a 60 cow herd upwards. One Irish farmer currently has four robots installed for his herd.

But according to these figures, is it fair to argue that a robotic milking system best suits the 120-plus size herds? "Not necessarily," says Larry Banville from Lely dealer Donohoe's of Enniscorthy. "We are seeing a lot of farmers with 60 or 70 cows fit one robot and then leave the option of adding a second at a later date when the herd has expanded.

"Farmers are usually cautious and start with one robot to keep the outlay manageable. If things go well and the herd size expands it is easy to add a second robot in five years' time.

"We have installed 31 farms around the South Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny and Wexford areas with robots now. We have even had two start up dairy operations with about 60 cows install a robot; there's a myth that it is only big established farms who are looking at robots as a viable option."

What about costs and payback time? And is the investment too risky and the payback time unrealistic at a time of volatile milk prices in the post quota era? Mr Banville doesn't think so, and he says Lely have crunched the numbers to let farmers have an idea of the daily costs involved.

"If you work the costs out over a 10-year loan payback period for a 70 cow herd, a farmer installing one robot for €120,000 will pay about €40 per day back over the life of the loan.

"The payback gets more efficient in a twin robot system. For example, the 120-cow herd needing two robots will pay back about €70 per day for ten years on a loan of €200,000."

Interestingly, Mr Banville says there is now a growing trend of young farmers with third level degrees and off farm jobs - teachers with farming backgrounds being the prime example - installing a robot. He has noticed another trend whereby older farmers who are ready to retire are enticing their sons into taking over the dairy business by installing a robot. This takes the manual labour and time requirements out of the milking.


"A lot of the time the son has a good off-farm job and wouldn't be particularly interested in carrying on milking if it meant being tied to the farm morning and evening, but a robot is a sweetener for him because it drastically cuts labour requirements.

"It's a win-win situation; the tradition of milking cows continues on the family farm, the father is happy to have a succession plan in place, while the new generation get to maintain an outside interest and income with an off farm job."

In terms of the outlook for robotic milking in Ireland, Mr Banville thinks we are now seeing the beginning of something big.

"We are expecting a multiplier effect in terms of the interest in installations," he says. "South Tipperary is a good example, where one farmer starts off and then another goes for it, then before long you have 12 or 13 farms with robotic milking within a few miles of each other.

"At Lely we expect to reach 100 installations by the end of 2017 through a mixture of established farmers and new entrants.

"In our experience financing the robots hasn't been an issue for farmers because there is a clear payback plan," adds Mr Banville.

"We expect the new Glanbia loan program to be used by a number of our customers this year because it suits farmers by linking repayments to the milk price."

Brendan Hayes' verdict on robotic milking

The good

Hugely labour saving, no need for milking staff

You get your life back outside of milking the cows

Tighter calving interval thanks to the heat detection system

Cows are much more docile

No need to run a bull with the cows as they are isolated for AI after heat detection

Milk from cows with high SCC is diverted for calf feeding

Improvement in herd husbandry

The investment can be used against tax write off

The bad

Cows are always coming to the yard for milking; this can be an issue if you are driving a tractor on farm roadways

The grazing block needs to be well organised to ensure cows get fresh grass after milking

Payback can be challenging if milk price stays down

Training the cows for the first 10 days requires patience

"I never know what time it is anymore," says Brendan. "My life revolved around morning and evening milking before I put the robots in!"

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