Farmer/owner: Don, Jackie, Trevor & Justine Griffin
Farm location: Leicestershire
Farm name: Kirkby Fields Farm
Herd: 120 – 140 British Friesians
Milking system: Two Fullwood Merlins
Date of installation: July 2011
When Trevor and Justine Griffin learnt that they weren’t allowed to expand their farm’s herringbone parlour, they couldn’t envisage a viable future in milk production. Their only choice was to install a robotic parlour, but they were unconvinced by the technology and had major doubts about how to take their business forward. With hindsight however, the installation of two Fullwood Merlin robots has been the best thing that could have happened to their business, with milk yields up by 12.6%, mastitis down by 68% and an immeasurable improvement in their own quality of life.
Trevor and Justine Griffin milk 120 pedigree British Friesians under the Kirkby Herd prefix at Middlefield Farm near Hinckley in Leicestershire. They also raise beef and dairy youngstock and bulls for breeding at a second unit away from the main dairy farm.
Since Trevor’s parents, Donald and Jackie, established the herd in the late 1980s, the cows have been milked through a 6:12 herringbone parlour. At its peak, the parlour had a throughput of 110 cows with the morning milking taking in excess of three hours, and the afternoon milking taking at least two hours to complete.
“It was an extremely reliable and simple jar parlour, with manual feeders and absolutely no electronics or automation,” Trevor Griffin describes. “It still worked, but was getting very long in the tooth and didn’t lend itself to efficient milk production.” Like many dairy businesses, the Griffins knew they needed to invest in the farm’s infrastructure to improve efficiencies and to provide a better working environment for themselves and their cows.
“We originally wanted to make the existing parlour bigger and had actually bought a second hand 16:32 parlour to do just that,” Trevor continues. “But we subsequently found out that the Food Standards Agency wouldn’t let us expand the existing facilities due to the parlour’s proximity to the slurry lagoon.”
The only option left to the Griffins was to consider the installation of two robots, but they were unconvinced that a fully automated system would suit them or their cows. “We were fearful that the cows wouldn’t take to the robots and that they would become too jumpy around us due to a lack of human contact in the parlour, Justine describes. We were also concerned about the costs involved, but in hindsight it has been the best thing that could have happened.”
After a lot of head scratching, the Griffin’s farm vet suggested that they should speak to the East Midlands Development Agency to see if they would provide a grant towards the cost of the robots on cow welfare grounds.
“We applied for a 50% grant and ended up with 30% funding,” Justine adds, “but we still weren’t 100% sure about the robots. We knew they would potentially give us a better lifestyle, but we didn’t appreciate just how much of an advantage they’d be to the cows. They have massively improved animal welfare by reducing bullying, cutting mastitis and reducing lameness. The cows are also much quieter and more contented and are subsequently giving more milk.
The two Fullwood Merlin units were installed in July 2011 and during their first full year of milking saw the average milk yield per lactation increase from 7,027 litres in 305 days to 7,912 litres – equivalent to a 12.6% increase.
Trevor cites increased milking frequency as the main reason for the rise in yield. “The feed ration is exactly the same as it was before we moved out of the old parlour,” he explains. “The only difference is that the cows are now being milked an average of 2.9 times per day when housed, with the high yielders reaching 5.6 visits per day. The number of milkings varies throughout the year depending on whether the cows are housed or have access to grass – during the summer cows are given free access to fresh grass, at which time the average number of milkings falls to 2.1 visits per day.
“There was no way we wanted the cows to be housed all year as it’s cheaper for us to produce milk from grass during the summer,” Trevor continues. “We weren’t sure how we’d make the system work, but Fullwood were proactive in helping us to design a system and layout which works, and works well.”
The herd has also benefitted from reduced mastitis, with the number of treated cases falling from 56 to 18 per year – a decrease of 68%. This is predominantly because the robots wash out the teat cups after every other milking to reduce the spread of mastitis causing bacteria, as well as the individual quarter milking which prevents any over-milking or teat damage.
Trevor explains “The old parlour was about as simple as it gets with no automation and no modern tech. The robots are the polar opposite, with the ability to generate vast amounts of information for each cow. We thought it would be difficult to wade through all the information, but each machine sends data to a central computer which uses Fullwood’s Crystal software to display the key pieces of information in an easy to understand format.
“It is really simple to identify which cows might be showing early signs of mastitis and which are in heat. In fact, we can AI all the cows blind simply by looking at Crystal each morning. Best of all, I can manage the entire herd from my mobile phone. It makes dairy farming so much more efficient.”
“At the moment the cows have free access to grass and we have to accept that later lactation cows will only be milked once per day. This system works,” Trevor concludes, “but we’re going to install a shedding gate to make sure those cows don’t get too lazy. Hopefully we’ll see all cows being milked at least twice a day which should improve yields from grass and help us to keep a closer eye on cows as they approach their drying off period.”