Farm of the Week: Robotics and organics link for milk trade

Ian Hutchinson with some of his Tontine Ayrshire herd.
Ian Hutchinson with some of his Tontine Ayrshire herd.
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It was towards the end of the Second World War, in 1944, that the Hutchinson family came to Cock Bush Hall Farm next to the A19 near Ingleby Arncliffe.

Sam Hutchinson is now the fourth generation of his family to farm there while his father, Ian, lives on another farm in the family partnership, just across the A19 at Osmotherly,

The farms are run jointly by Ian and Sam with grandfather Ron. Grandmother Hilda also helps with the books.

Until 1978, they were tenants, but bought the farm when their landlady died.

Cock Bush Hall is 176 acres; the other farm at Osmotherly, used for sheep and young stock, is 94 acres. In 1999, they became organic.

“We just felt it was the way to go,” said Ian. “We weren’t heavy users of fertilisers in the first place and we just thought it would be a good way.”

“The price in milk wasn’t that good at that time any way.”

Two years after making the change, the Hutchinsons were hit by the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001, not as an infected farm, but in the contiguous cull when a nearby farm went down with the disease.

“It was extremely traumatic for me, losing all my life’s work,” said Ian. “They were Holstein cows, but they were mine, all home-bred.”

When the family went back into dairying they decided on a complete change, opting for Ayrshires rather than ‘black and whites’.

“I’d always liked Ayrshires,” said Ian. “Because all the bloodlines had gone, everything, it was a fresh start, and the Ayrshire cows are slightly smaller and suit the organic system well.”

The male calves have more potential than “black and whites” to go for meat.

Ian Hutchinson says this is something which is not appreciated by calf buyers, so his bullocks are now reared on to slaughter weight.

“Our calves go to a neighbour who fattens them. We also started doing our own beef two years ago. They’re finished at about two years old.”

As well as being organic, the Hutchinsons are one of an increasing number of dairy farms which have switched over to robotic milking machines.

“The old parlour was past repairing,” said Sam.

The family bought two robotic milking machines from Tim Gibson, at Bedale, who has the franchise for the Dutch company, Lely.

Using this system, the cows, which all have electronic collars, make their own choice about when they are ready to be milked, and wander into the milking pen, where the suction cups are attached to their teats automatically by a robotic mechanical arm guided by laser senors.

“They just come as, and when. They get into a rhythm,” said Sam.

“In early lactation they can come up to five times a day.”

While Sam does not have the bother of having to milk the cows, he does have to be able to respond to any problems, even in the middle of the night. If the machine breaks down for any reason, usually a cow kicking a pipe, his mobile phone rings and a recorded message summons him. He also says that since the introduction of the machines, milk yields have increased with the cows feeling less stress.

Ian thinks that the difference has been 1,000 litres a cow extra for each lactation.

Another advantage with Ayrshire cows is that they tend to live longer and have more lactations than their more intensive counterparts.

“The cows were bought in 2001/2002; we still have some of those,” said Ian.

There are several organic dairy farms close to the Hutchinsons, something which cuts the cost of collecting the milk.

And thanks to the robotic milking machines, Cock Bush Hall is always the first call for collection on the round – there’s never the need to wait until the milking has been finished.

The Hutchinsons believe both the lower intensity of their organic farming system, and the use of robotic milkers is better for the animals.

“We think that the way we’re doing it now, we’re getting less problems with the cows. We feel we have less lameness and mastitis than in conventional systems,” said Sam.

“You don’t have to push them around; you don’t have to push them into the parlour and then push them out again. They’re their own animals and they just wonder round and do as they please.”

One advantage of the robot milking machines is that they can detect any infections in the teats which could turn into mastitis.

“It takes the conductivity level of the milk on each quarter, so you can pretty much identify which quarter’s got it,” said Sam.

The Hutchinsons now sell their milk to the organic buyers OMSCO, they were with Dairy Farmers of Britain and lost both a month’s milk cheque and their investment in the business when it went bust.

“The organic market is growing slowly, but not as fast as you might hope,” said Ian.

“There aren’t as many people converting now (to organic farming).”

“They reckon that the milk sector was the strongest within the organic sector,” said Sam. “OMSCO, are actually exporting some milk to France.”

Ian said that the milk price is still too low, and although like many organic farmers, the Hutchinsons have occasionally half-heartedly talked about going back to conventional farming, they say that they are committed to the organic system, so a change has never really been on the cards.