Farmer/owner: Mark Williams
Farm location: Near Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire
Farm name: Cwmharad Farm
Herd: 70 Friesians
Milking system: Fullwood Merlin
Date of installation: November 2013
When a debilitating stroke left Mark Williams unable to milk his cows without assistance, he set out to find the most efficient and user-friendly way of managing his cows. His search for the right milking system has finally led to the installation of a robotic parlour which, as well as making life easier for the entire family, has also contributed to a 20% increase in milk output.
At the time of Mark’s stroke, the farm’s 40 cows were being milked through a six-point tandem parlour which was installed during his father’s farming career. “The old parlour was slow to milk through and gave no scope to expand the herd,” Mark explains. “We replaced it in 2005 with a 10:20 Fullwood herringbone which we hoped would reduce milking times and make the whole farm more efficient. By then we were milking 70 cows, but my disability meant I still relied heavily on Caroline and Sion to do a lot of the milking for me.”
Mark’s goal was to find a solution which would reduce the pressure on the entire family by moving as much of the workload as possible back to him. “It was either that or face the reality of having to cease milk production,” he says. “My aim was therefore to find a way of milking the cows without having to rely on Caroline and Sion.”
“I’d heard mixed reports on how well the first generation of robotic milkers worked,” he explains, “and had some reservations about whether they were right for our farm. We opted to stick with what we knew, but it turned out that the new herringbone wasn’t the perfect solution. We stuck with it for eight years, but I was still relying heavily on Caroline and Sion to do the milking.”
“We saw a Fullwood Merlin robot being demonstrated at a show and realised that the technology had come a huge way since the early days of robotic milking. I subsequently visited a neighbouring farm where the same technology was being used to successfully and reliably milk the herd. I knew there and then that a robot was the only way of reducing the workload for the whole family.”
Work to install a Fullwood Merlin at Cwmharad began in November 2013 with the first cows going through the robot a little over a month later. “The first few days were hard work with cows having to be physically coaxed through the machine,” Mark describes, “but within a fortnight all cows were happily using the robot and were milking well.
“We had to get rid of two cows because they weren’t lactating properly and thought we might have to sell a third because she had crossed teats which the robot struggled to attach to. But it turned out she was being milked too often. We quickly learned that by programming the robot to milk her a maximum of four times per day, her udder would remain fuller for longer so that her teats were no longer crossed. She’s now milking perfectly and has adapted well to the robot.”
Since the robot was installed, the herd’s average yield has increased by 20% – mainly because the cows are now being milked an average of 3.2 times per day. “We’ve never seen cows give more than 30 litres of milk per day, but that is now normal for the herd,” Mark describes. “We’ve even got a handful of cows which are being milked five times a day and are giving 40-45 litres per day.”
“Our monthly milk cheque is consistently 20% higher than it used to be, which means the robot is comfortably paying for itself. As the cows reach their peaks I’m confident we’ll see yields increase from 7,000 to 9,000 litres.”
Cow movement is managed via a one-way system which forces cows to pass through the feeding area before they are able to return to the robot: they exit the robot via a footbath to gain access to the feed barrier before passing through a one-way gate to return to the cubicles.
The cows are also more content – and are yielding more milk as a direct result – and the whole farm is easier to manage. Mark isn’t currently planning on installing a second robot, but the idea has crossed his mind. “We haven’t got any firm plans to expand the herd, but if we were to go down that route I now know without a doubt that a second robot would work and would pay for itself.”