ANALYSIS - Adding automation to a dairy operation can reduce labour, increase output and reduce human error.
But Yorkshire farmer Tim Gibson, speaking at the Precision Farming event at Newark, said that automation does not mean autopilot.
Mr Gibson, who has a 200 cow herd and farms 350 acres at Bedale in North Yorkshire installed a robotic milking system on his farm in 2001.
He is shortly to acquire another herd of cattle to bring his own herd up to nearly 300 cows.
Of the 350 acres 250 acres are devoted to forage and the other 100m acres grows maize.
After installing his own automatic system, Mr Gibson started selling automatic systems and established a business offering customer service and support.
From the robotic milking system, Mr Gibson then developed his own automatic feeding system, calf feeding and scraping system.
The automatic feeding system feeds the cows between eight and 10 times a day.
Mr Gibson said that the cows feed more often and they milk more often increasing yields.
He said that the automatic feeder ensures that each group of cows has its own trough and the feeder moves like a baggage carousel at an airport.
“It is like a sushi bar for the cows,” he said.
He said the regime of feeding little and often means that there is nothing to fork out of the troughs and it improves the efficiency of the food.
At present his output is about 1.6 million litres and with the extra cattle he is bringing on to the farm he said that production will increase to more than 2 million litres.
The robotic milking system identifies each cow through a collar around the neck, which contains all the details of the cow including teat size for the cluster and the system can take further details of the cow as she is being milked.
Mr Gibson said that the system reduces labour – at present he has just two people working for him – increases output and reduces human error.
However he said this is only achieved if the system is applied and worked correctly.
While it is attractive to younger workers bringing younger people into the sector, the staff has to be motivated, managed and trained.
The systems require regular maintenance and with this maintenance can fix costs and even reduce them and by reducing the human element and ensuring better hygiene and biosecurity, the automatic systems for cleaning. Scraping and spraying reduce problems such as mastitis.
Mr Gibson added that the automatic feeder he has for calves means that they tend to grow more quickly, but having an automatic feeder does not mean that the calves can be ignored.
He said that with automatic systems the animals tend to learn more quickly than the human staff, which is why all these systems need good management and good training.
He added that having had the automatic system on his farm, he noticed that the culling rates were falling after about five years as cow longevity increased.
And the payback time for the installation has been about seven years.
“The key things for a robot are space and milking point openness,” Mr Gibson said.
“And you need good management and good staff motivation.”
Top image via Shutterstock