Reaping all the benefits from integrating technology

Author: Ben Thompson (IfA) - Date: January 14, 2019

Hopes Ash Farm is a mixed farm situated in Herefordshire, Midlands, England. The farm was Farmers Weekly mixed farm of the year 2016 and is owned and managed by Robert Davies and his family. Alongside the dairy herd, the farm also runs a beef, sheep, arable, turkey and cider apple enterprise. As part of the multi-enterprise farm, the Davies family have a dairy herd of 126 Holstein/Friesian cows, milked through 2 Lely Astronaut A3 Robots. They are calving all year round and rearing their own replacements.

Robert Davies pictured with Farmers Weekly award

The average yield of the Hopes Ash herd is 10,000 litres at a quality of 4.27% butterfat and 3.29% protein.

Milking robot

The Lely robots were installed 10 years ago, and the first benefit was that Robert knew the cows were being milked whilst he was doing another job, especially important when having plenty to do on farm.

The cows themselves are also less stressed, as the milking environment is always the same. There has been no change in milk production since installation; however there has been an improvement in quality. These benefits however Robert explained “can only be reached through following the recommended protocol for services and maintenance of the robots; you have to adapt your ways to the technology, not the other way around”.

As part of the Lely Astronaut, in the robotic arm there is an MQC (Milk Quality Control) box which measures conductivity of the milk, every time a cow is milked. From using this, udder health of the cows has improved considerably; allowing earlier detection of mastitis. With such a high specificity however, some cases may not need treating; so therefore, a good stockman is needed to distinguish these apart. It is a message that Robert is keen to put across that “you shouldn’t panic and immediately treat an animal that has come up as an alert. It is giving you an early indication of an animal to monitor more closely and treat if needed. Especially with udder health cases, it’s surprising how many animals will self-cure.”

As a result of having this information on hand and using this approach, Robert and his team have been able to make better stock decisions. This has enabled the dairy farm to reduce its antibiotic usage by 25% and use preventative treatments such as udder mint in more cases.

Management system

Robert also uses the Lely T4C Office system. This is a real-time management system specially for the Lely milking robots.  It allows constant data collection of different parameters associated with the management of the herd in terms of health and production.

Lely's ​T4C Management system

Another change that has benefitted the farm includes changing the neck collars of the herd to SCR long range sensors. This has been beneficial in helping achieve a tighter calving pattern in replacement heifers; who can still be monitored when grazing around the farm.

The collars also monitor rumination, activity and health. This has allowed early detection of disease and lameness.

Automatic calf feeders

The automatic feeders were installed 5 years ago, and since installation has improved general calf management substantially. Calf mortality has improved since using automatic feeders, with mortality now below 4%.

The automatic calf feeder. 

As well as reducing labour; early identification of health issues was a huge benefit from using the alert system. This is linked to an electronic tag collar that the calves wear, allowing the number of feeds, amount of feed and break off time to be monitored. These alerts have allowed early identification of calves with e.g. pneumonia and scours.

With this technology, there is still the need however for good stockmanship. Using the automatic feeders however has allowed more time to spend treating calves with any problems; and finding these problems sooner.

Integrating technology choice

At Hopes Ash Farm, Robert has chosen technology that would further benefit the farm’s system specifically. Robert has mentioned that the farm has experienced all the benefits that were expected before installation.

He has explained that a message to get across is to “not get bogged down with the all the data collected. The information is available in order to make better decisions as a stockman”. At Hopes Ash Farm, they have also adapted their working routine; and Robert emphasizes that must be the approach when introducing new technology on farm. “You as a farmer must adapt to in any slight ways for the new technology you are using, not the other way around; only this way can you reap all the benefits”.   

Overall, there is no 100% certainty with either using just technology or good stockmanship. For a farm to be closer to its full potential, then both good stockmanship as well suitable technology is needed. This is supported by Robert and the staff of Hopes Ash farm who admit that they “wouldn’t be experiencing the benefits without the combination of both”.