Farm of the Week: Robot taking the strain out of dairying

Small dairy farmers are going through hard times. But Peter Clark has been spending big-time. Chris Benfield spoke to him about it.

IT seemed like a good idea at the time. And now Peter Clark is well and truly committed to sticking with dairy and hoping for an upturn to repay the 200,000 he has spent on making it possible to go forward single-handed.

Most of the money has gone on a robot, which he expects to switch on any day now.

The Lely Astronaut A3, installed by Tom Gibson of Bedale, is a Dutch milking machine which should give 65 lactating cows an average of 2.8 milkings a day, one at a time.

In pursuit of feed treats and relief from full udders, they will learn to go through an automatic gate onto the robot's weighbridge and a transponder on their neck collars will be read to make sure they are not out of turn.

If the machine's brain gives the go-ahead, a milking arm will reach underneath the animal and, using a combination of memory of the animal and laser guidance, will wash the teats and then automatically latch onto them.

The milk will be sampled as it flows, for the various tests of cleanliness and cow health which are part of any dairy operation. And the transponder will pass on information about the cow's behaviour since last seen – including the amount of time it has spent chewing cud, which is an important measure of the productivity it is getting from its feed.

An exit gate will direct the animal back to its pasture or housing – or divert it into a holding pen for human attention.

Mr Clark will need to be close enough to respond to automatic text messages. But otherwise, he will finally be free of the relentless twice-a-day demands which make dairying so hard.

Aged 40, he runs just over 300 acres – 170 arable, 130 grass – with part-time help from his father, Brian, who is 70. Peter shares the crop work with a neighbour, David Wilson, so he sometimes has 300 acres of wheat to attend to, but he and his dad have run the dairy herd between them since he came home from university.

It is a closed herd. No animal has been bought into it for 40 years, but it sustains itself and sells out some spares. All breeding is done by AI, favouring the sturdiness of the old British Friesian type over the ultimate productivity of the super-Holstein. They all qualify under the broad heading of Holstein-Friesian but they have good legs and feet and live long enough to give up to 10 lactations.

About 65 milkers average 7,800 litres each over a year – all sold through Arla for Asda at 26p a litre for now. That is a reasonably gentle rate of output but it comes from reasonably cheap feeding – using electric fencing to get best value out of the grazing and winter feed made up mainly of the farm's own silage, from maize and grass.

"We probably only purchase in about a tonne and a quarter per animal over a year," says Mr Clark.

However, about 18 months ago, it was clear they had to change something.

Their little six-berth milking parlour was on its last legs. Some old kennel-type cattle housing had literally blown away in a gale and the loose barn which became replacement winter quarters was leading to mastitis problems, because of cattle sharing straw and soiling each other's laying spaces.

It was hard to see how the elder Mr Clark was ever going to join wife Christine in retirement, off the farm – which is Moor House Farm at Great Langton, on the Swale, between Catterick and Northallerton.

"One possibility was getting out of dairy," Peter admits. "But the farm was smaller then – we added 47 acres just about a year ago – and corn was 80 a tonne, compared to about 190 now.

"We talked about employing somebody else, but we would have needed to expand the herd. We didn't want to start buying in stock and it would have taken a while to build up from our own. Also, we didn't want to start buying in a lot of feed. One reason we have good locomotion scores is breeding but another is not being excessive with protein concentrate."

He took all these considerations, and the figures which went with them, to a three-day think-tank with the title What If?, in November 2009, organised by the industry levy body, DairyCo. One of the facilitators, Tony Jackson, knew his farm anyway, through the Asda supplier network.

It was a rare opportunity to simply bounce ideas around and do sums. And a robot milker was one of the ideas. Mr Clark had been interested since he first saw one, in Holland, in 1991. He came away more or less convinced it was what he wanted.

A little later, Yorkshire Forward announced a scheme funded by the Rural Development Programme for England – half Defra, half EU – which offered some support for major farm investments if there were benefits for animal welfare.

There was a case to be made for the robot, because of its contribution to monitoring health. And after some negotiation, and "massive" form-filling, it was agreed that the agency would chip in for improvements including the robot and a complete new set of individual winter cubicles, which should help sort out the mastitis.

The work started last September and is still going on when we call, but looks like working out at around 120,000 for the robot, fully installed, plus 15,000 for a heat recycling system to minimise running costs, and 65,000 for the rest. Yorkshire Forward promised 60,000 before it was given its cards.

Mr Clark sums up: "Whether I would have made the same decision with corn prices as they are now, I don't know. But it is done now. The kit should last 15 to 20 years and I'd like to pay the cost back over five years. It depends where milk prices go and where feed prices go. With the Asda contract, I can just afford to hang on and see.

"I might get a 10 per cent yield increase over the next year if I feed a bit harder, but I still have to do the sums on that. Meanwhile, at least I've got a plan – and, with luck, some life back. It will certainly be easier to get relief cover.

"To get the best out of the robot, I do think you have to be interested in computers as well as cows. Luckily, I always have been. It's brilliant at generating information but you have to understand the system to make use of it."

n DairyCo runs a successor to the What If series of seminars, called Planning For Profit. Contact Kate Cross on 02476 478686.

CW 22/1/11