Farmer/owner: John & Stephen Brisbane
Farm location: Bannockburn, Stirling
Farm name: Gartclush Farm
Herd: 180 Holsteins
Milking system: Fullwood Merlin
Date of installation: March 2009
The Brisbane family has farmed at Gartclush for over a century, building the dairy herd to a peak of 165 cows five years ago. But milking the herd through the farm’s 40 year old 12 point herringbone parlour was a labour intensive process that required John Brisbane to employ full-time staff as well as a part-time dairyman to work alongside himself and son Stephen. In order to increase efficiency and reduce the need for external labour, they made the decision to invest and upgrade all their milking facilities.
In spring 2009, two Fullwood Merlin robots were installed and at the same time, cow numbers reduced by 30 animals to a herd size of 135. “That is the maximum comfortable number of cows we felt the two machines could handle,” John explains. “At first we were concerned that we would see a big drop in milk production but we are actually producing the same amount of milk from fewer cows.”
In effect the robots have allowed John and Stephen to move to three times a day milking which has seen milk output increase from 29 kilos per cow per day to an average of 32.5 kilos. Milk quality has also improved since switching to the automated set-up. “The cows are now housed all year round which not only allows for more frequent milking, but also allows us to feed a more consistent ration, resulting in a more level production which is important to our milk purchasers Graham’s Dairies” John explains.
The cows are fed a complete diet of baled grass silage, wholecrop peas and crimped wheat with cake being fed through the robots’ in-built feeders. “We have more control over what each cow eats as the cake ration is automatically adjusted by Crystal, the Fullwood herd management software. A larger or smaller ration is dispensed according to how much each cow is producing and where she is in her lactation.” As a result butterfat and protein levels have increased which has led to an improved price for the milk.
John is also pleased with the improvements in herd health and milk hygiene. The Fullwood machines allow each quarter to be milked out individually, which means less teat damage and less mastitis. “In fact, since we started using the robots, mastitis has almost been completely eradicated,” John says. “That means lower vet bills and less milk going down the drain.”
After almost two years of robotic milking, John and Stephen decided to install a third Merlin in July 2010 so that cow numbers can increase to 180 milkers. “Expanding the herd by 50 cows will only mean an additional 15 minutes of extra work in terms of feeding and bedding but will allow us to increase milk output by up to 30 per cent”. Explains Stephen.
As well as the improvements in terms of milk production and herd health, John and Stephen are also enjoying a more relaxed and flexible way of working.
“We no longer need to employ any full-time staff which means that the robots are effectively paying for themselves,” John says. “At the same time, we no longer have to spend five hours in the parlour each day and don’t have get up as early as we used to. That gives us more time to manage other aspects of the farm and means we are less tired and therefore more productive.”
“The primary reason for installing the robots was to modernise the farm’s milking facilities and to plan for Stephen’s long-term future in the industry. Increased yields, being less reliant on outside labour as well as a more relaxed and flexible lifestyle for ourselves have been added bonuses,” he concludes.