Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Saturday 18 November 2017

Robotic milky way goes organic in Tipp

Udderly Fascinating: Milking robots now milk over one million cows globally. Photo: Alf Harvey
Udderly Fascinating: Milking robots now milk over one million cows globally. Photo: Alf Harvey
Grace Maher

Grace Maher

Organic farming echoes many of the principles of traditional farming and is often criticised for being old fashioned. However, many organic farmers argue that it is a highly advanced method of farming requiring intricate knowledge and skill. While organic farming has a younger age profile than conventional farming, some sectors are struggling to attract both new entrants.

Dairying is a case in point. In 2012, there were 28 organic dairy herds in Ireland, milking 2,890 cows. This is an 21pc increase in cow numbers since 2009. Organic herds tend to be smaller, with 30pc milking less than 25 cows.

One of the main deterrents to new entrants is that winter milking is usually a requirement. But the biggest issue is always price, especially when conventional prices are so strong.

But the scale and low input nature of organic dairying suits many farmers as a safer bet as a volatile post-quota period looms.

Pat Mulrooney has been certified with IOFGA for over 25 years and as such is a veteran of the organic sector. He is a founding member of The Little Milk Company, a multi-award winning organic dairy co-operative who produce a range of cheeses, including cheddar, brie, and beer-washed cheese.

Pat has recently invested in a Lely robot to carry out the milking on his farm.

"After initial research, it seemed like a good option for me. Currently my wife, Angela, and myself run the farm and additional labour costs to assist with milking were becoming prohibitive, so I started looking at robots. I liked the idea that it would reduce potential contamination in the herd and in time it will improve efficiencies and overall management on the farm" said Mr Mulrooney.

Sustainable

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He would like to see younger people enter into organic dairying, but feels that the current workload is not sustainable.

"We spend an average of about 40 hours a week in the milking parlour with 75 cows. I have been doing this for over 20 years every single day, including Christmas Day.

"I think that it is unrealistic to expect younger people to take on this workload," he added.

Pat describes himself as someone who is "alright" with computers. "I can send an email, but not an attachment. I sat down with the suppliers for about an hour and had them translate everything into my language, which made things easier," he said.

While still in the early stages of adjustment, both Pat and the cows are finding it relatively easy to adapt to the machine.

"I had anticipated problems especially with the cows, some of whom are in their tenth lactation, but they have been great.

"There is far less stress on the animals and they go into the milking unit themselves whenever they need to be milked. I have not had any problems with the heifers either, so that is encouraging," he said.

Other benefits are that the machine is flushed between cows reducing the spread of infection. It will also identify cows with high temperatures and potential mastitis, which prompts early treatment.

The machine also highlights when cows are coming in heat, all of which should ensure that things run more smoothly on the farm.

Feeding

In the longer term, Pat feels that yields will increase slightly as the cows will milk better. He also hopes to reduce his meal feeding costs since the machine will allow him to move from flat rates to feeding meal based on individual yields.

"I think it milks the animals better than a human can, even someone with a lot of experience like myself. Milking is still a hands-on job and I have a lot to learn.

"But I think it will pay off because I expect it to cut my workload in half."

Pat is now planning to increase his winter milk supply to match demand.

He also believes that the robot will use less water and will have a similar energy requirement to his old parlour, although he feels there is scope for further savings if the machine was coupled with solar panels.

Grace Maher is development officer with www.iofga.org

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