Robotics in the dairy industry: how do they help?
Production demands on the dairy industry have never been higher, and with Brexit and climate change posing an additional challenge, farmers are increasingly looking for solutions to increase productivity. One change witnessed over the last decade is the rise in use of robotics on farm, but can these mechanical helpers be a viable solution for farmers? We spoke to Devon dairy farmer Dan Slee to find out how robots are helping his operation.
Dan manages his family’s 400-cow pedigree herd of Southblower Holsteins near Clovelly in Devon, working alongside his father, uncle and cousin. Three years ago, despite mild opposition from some of the family partnership, Dan decided to add a robot called Juno to the team.
Used with housed livestock, the purpose of the robot is simple. It automatically pushes total mixed ration (TMR) scattered during feeding back up to the feed barrier towards the cattle. A job otherwise done infrequently by hand, Juno manufacturer Lely estimates that it saves 180 hours of labour per year. Making feed more available stimulates frequent feeding throughout the day and night, resulting in higher intakes. In turn, this is expected to increase milk yield.
“We had the robot on trial for two months but didn’t really see a rise in yield,” says Dan. Feeling vindicated, those opposed to the robot remarked on it being a ‘waste of time and money’!
Sadly, Juno was made redundant and the demo ended early.
But it was in Juno’s absence, the Slee family really saw its true value. “Within a week, yields had fallen by two litres a cow,” Dan tells us. “I realised the cows would have been dropping off a couple of litres sooner without Juno’s support, but because the robot was there, it was keeping their yield stable.”
So, Juno returned. “I made the decision that we needed the robot to maintain our productivity and within a couple of weeks, yields had crept back up to where they were prior to Juno’s departure.”
Three years on and Dan would be hesitant to take the robot away again. “Juno works 24 hours a day, every hour. It’s a job we could never do that frequently.”
Dan also sees the robot as a good financial investment. “It paid for itself within three months. It’s a very good piece of kit and not silly money for what it does.”
After the recent addition of an add-on shed with 80 cubicles, Dan found another opportunity to gain benefit from using robots. He explains: “We decided to install a dump station just outside the new shed and use a collector robot to scrape slurry from the shed into the dump station every hour. Without it, slurry from the new shed was running-off into the yard, so this keeps both the shed and yard clean, tidy and safe.”
“Neither robot is perfect yet; they go wrong occasionally so you have to keep an eye on them. But for the most part, they do a cracking job!”
Dan intends to continue introducing automation to the farm: “In the next few years, I would like to put fully automatic scrapers into our main sheds. It would definitely help save labour and reduce fuel use driving the tractor.”
Farmers are currently seeing the biggest changes in agriculture for more than 50 years. As a mutual insurer, we’ve stood by South West farmers since 1903 and through our Future Farming Programme, we are helping our Members and the wider farming community navigate the changes ahead in this transformative time.Future Farming Programme