Troughs like a sushi bar on the robotic dairy farm

Life as a dairy cow at Hunters Hill Farm north of Crakehall isn’t so bad. Try this for size. How many animals do you know that have an on-farm sushi bar? There’s also none of this monotonously boring same milking times every day, instead Tim Gibson’s 200-strong dairy cows go to be milked when they choose.

Dairy farmer Tim Gibson has installed robotic milking technology to milk his 200 cows.

Robotic milking is something that a number of Yorkshire dairy farmers have entered into in the past 20 years. Tim was one of the first and through a previous venture he has probably fitted the lion’s share of the others.

He’s not averse to trying something new. In the past year the automated feeding system used on his farm that he designed himself has won three major awards including most recently the Farm Inventions Award last week. But while award wins are recognition of his Tim’s efforts, it’s the results of his work that please him most.

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“It has improved intakes dramatically. We use a TMR mixer and the feed travels on conveyors and is deposited into different troughs where each is like a sushi bar,” Tim explains. “The system allows for replenishment every two-to-three hours and this means all cows are fed little and often.”

Tim made the feeding system from a feed mixer he purchased from Denmark, conveyors he bought via a processing plant off eBay and scrap steel.

“We also made our own concrete troughs but put a stainless steel floor in so that it’s as though the cows are eating off a shiny dinner plate.”

Looking after his cows well is Tim’s philosophy. Some 13 years ago he installed his first robotic milkers. He currently has three and has become an expert on the subject having ran an installation company for just over a decade - putting Lely Astronaut machines onto farms in the North. Now, he acts as a consultant.

“I devise dairy business strategies utilising my knowledge and experience looking at expansion of cow numbers and increased herd productivity. I’m also a qualified master trainer for a collaborative operation called Cow Signals that’s run by a group of Dutch veterinary companies and looks at getting farmers thinking about how they can improve awareness of what is happening to their herd by watching for tell-tale signs. I train others and we’re developing a network of advisers. I hold courses here for between six and 12 people at a time.

“The long-standing diversification business I ran that included the sale, retail and installation of robotic milking machines just became unviable in its format. We’re continuing to supply parts and dairy sundries either via a van or on a 24-hour delivery service via internet sales and post.

“Robotic milking still works well. The cows choose when they are to be milked. The attraction is based upon feed being available. A key ingredient within their diet is energy and by coming to the robot they are fed energy pellets into a trough next to the robot. Basically it’s like giving the cow a sweetie.

“When the cow visits it is recognised by its collar. The robot identifies each cow and stores all the data in order that it knows how many pellets to give. But it doesn’t give feed all the time and neither does the cow get milked every time if the data states that it doesn’t need milking.

“On average we like to see a cow visit four times a day and be milked on three of those occasions. Newly calved cows at the start of their lactation will milk as much as four times a day. We keep simple records such as the total number of visits, milking visits, how many footsteps they have made in a day. This shows us how active she is. If she has had very low activity it can alert us to something being wrong. It also records how much milk she is giving daily and calculates her average.”

When Tim’s grandfather John Francis Gibson came to Hunters Hill in the late 1940s it was just 68 acres. Today, Tim farms 350 acres with around 165 acres owned. His father David was diagnosed with leukaemia when Tim was just 16 and passed away when Tim was 25.

“Dad had built up the farm by buying neighbouring land and when I took over we had about 100 cows and 100 acres. Granddad had Ayrshires, Dad had Friesians and I have a mix of all sorts including red and white Holsteins that are Ayrshire-bred and Shorthorn X Holsteins. I’ve steered clear of pedigree Holsteins as I have had experience of crossbreeding giving better traits. The cows last longer and for the past 10 years our culling rate has been below 20 per cent. That’s all down to the robots.

“When dad was diagnosed I just wanted to get through college as quickly as I could and get back to the farm. I’ve been involved with the management of it since I was 16 and my mother Denny and I are the two partners in the business that is still run under my grandfather’s initials of JF Gibson.”

Tim buys-in all of his cows to keep up with herd numbers rather than getting involved with breeding his own replacements.

“We went up from 100 to 200 milkers and that eliminated having young stock. I now buy cows in large batches to keep the numbers right.”

Milk from Hunters Hill goes to Payne’s Dairies near Ripon. It used to go to Dairy Farmers of Britain and Tim feels that dairy farmers should’ve stuck together. He has demonstrated alongside his fellow farmers with Farmers For Action in the past and he’d be back with them again if there was a demonstration at a dairy in the North-East.

“Our price has dropped dramatically recently. The NFU’s line is that it’s all down to world market prices and that’s probably correct but it doesn’t help. We need to get something moving to achieve a price that allows us to carry on supplying milk.”

Tim has also installed a new biomass boiler to provide all of the heating for the farmhouse, offices and farm buildings. After its first month of use, he predicts it may save £5,000 on his annual heating bill.