Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

Shorter days, lower costs - how robots are changing the face of dairy farming

Our reporter on the technology transforming farmers' lives

Waterford farmer Ken Murphy has invested over €230,000 in a Lely Astronaut robotic milking system. Photo: Sean Byrne.
Waterford farmer Ken Murphy has invested over €230,000 in a Lely Astronaut robotic milking system. Photo: Sean Byrne.
Ken Murphy with his son Finn and father Pat. Photo: Sean Byrne.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

'No one is suggesting that my one-year son is going to be a farmer, but the robots might maximise its appeal," said 42-year-old Waterford dairy farmer, Ken Murphy.

He has gone a step further than most farmers in the country by not only investing in robotic technology to milk his 144 cow herd, but also to feed his calves, clean his passageways…and even scratch his cows.

"Lely threw in the back-brusher for free," admits Murphy, and given the €230,000 that the farmer spent with the Dutch-based firm, he was probably entitled to it.

"A single robot costs about €120,000, but the second one is a lot cheaper at €90,000. The calf feeder was about €8,500, and the muck scraper was about €12,000. All those prices exclude VAT," he said.

Another €100,000 was spent on extensions and modifications to the shed, but Murphy believes that he would have spent at least that on building a new shed on a greenfield site if he had opted to go for a herringbone parlour.

"Even though I saw robots in operation on a college trip to Holland back in 1995, and thought they were great, I never really considered them for more than a moment as a real runner here.

"I did initially run it past my Teagasc advisor, and he ruled it out on the basis that it was untested technology. He was right in that regard, and I wasn't brave enough to go it alone," remembers Murphy of the thought process that finally brought him and several farmers to the automated system.

"So I was hankering after some kind of a parlour upgrade, and then realised that two of my neighbours, along with my cousin and a few other farmers locally were all in the same boat. So we decided to get together to pool our knowledge and see if our collective requirements could generate a bit of a discount.

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"Initially it was all about the conventional parlours, but after a Lely guy came to visit us, we decided to take a closer look."

Two years later, six of the original seven have opted to buy Lely robots, with Ken's two machines heading into their first spring season.

"We milked cows over the winter for the first time, basically because it wasn't me that had to do the milking," explains Ken.

"We milked some of the later calving cows on through, and we'll probably do the same this year."

Daily routine

He has found that the daily routine is shorter, and more flexible.

"I'm still starting at 7am, but I'll probably ease off on that once we get over the spring workload. But more importantly, I'm home at 5pm rather than 7pm. That's really important to me with a baby in the house. It's just nice to get a chance to be feeding him his tea."

But how does he cope when he wants to take holidays?

"Well I have a full-time man on the farm, but he doesn't work weekends, so I'm still on at the weekends, but there are lads in the area now that understand doing relief work with robots, so it's no different really from having a standard milking parlour.

"You still have to brief them on the problem cows and grazing situation, but they know how the system works - basically check the robots once or twice during the day, check the filters and keep an eye on the phone. I think that the system is also a good way to ensure that you keep good staff onboard."

Murphy is using an A-B-C grazing system where there are three grazing blocks on the go during any single 24-hour period, and he believes that the system might actually improve the grass utilisation by his 1,200 gallon cows.

"The cows are definitely more content. Some of them love getting back into the machine to get out first to a new block of grass, but others are the opposite, preferring to hang back and graze out pastures really well before being moved on."

And what about the higher running costs or the cost of further expansion?

"There's no doubt that the robots are going to have higher running costs than a parlour. It's too early for me to quantify how much, but I'm happy to pay extra in that I'm paying for a machine to replace human labour.

"With regard to further expansion, we could, in theory, go up to 160 cows, but that would be it. And I'm happy now sticking at 140. If I've 140 good cows, we'll have room for comfort, and not be chasing grass."

A limit of 70 cows has always been mooted for a single robot, and he believes that his machines are at their limit now, albeit with an adequate amount of free-time to allow the shier cows access the machine.

"The average number of milkings per day was averaging 2.2 last week, which I'd be happy with," he says.

The calf feeders were purchased two years before the robots, again to take some of the drudgery out of the daily routine.

"I used to have a milk-bar that fed about 30 calves on teats at a time, but I was always concerned about the slower drinkers only getting half the amount that the best drinkers got.

"I only really need to check the machine once a day. It takes a bag of milk replacer and gradually increases the feed for each calf as they grow older to a point where you specify that you want it to taper off again before weaning. "Each calf has a transponder on her neck so the feeder knows when they've got enough, and then it shuts down access for that animal for a few hours."

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