Making use of technology on the dairy farm

Date published: 27 May 2020

In this article, Judith McCord, a Dairying Development Adviser at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) examines how the use of new technology on dairy farms creates a balance between efficiency, profitability and family life.

Judith McCord is a Dairying Development Adviser at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise.

Brookvale farm situated just outside Dromore, Co.Down is where Richard Lilburn farms with his father Thomas, mother Olive and wife Pamela. 

The farm comprises of 200 acres with an additional 250 acres rented, where Richard is currently milking 220 pedigree Holstein dairy cows.  Life on the Lilburn farm has a strong emphasis on maintaining a good quality of family life.  If Richard was asked he’d say ‘mum rears the calves, dad is a great stock man and Pamela keeps me right with the paperwork – and I do everything else in between.’ 

Over the years Northern Ireland has seen a rise in the number of dairy farms embracing new technological advances and Brookvale Farm is one of these.

Zero Grazing

The Lilburn’s are aware that grass is the cheapest feed available for dairy cows but it can be a poorly utilised resource.  Maximising milk yields from grass is a key factor in profitable milk production on Brookvale farm and more so now in a period of difficult milk prices.  Utilised dry matter yield of zero grazed systems can be as high as 11 tonnes of dry matter per ha (DM/ha). 

Most traditional grazed grass systems achieve utilised yield of around eight tonnes DM/ha however at a much lower cost of production, given the machinery cost associated with zero grazing. Zero grazing can be a useful method of grassland management in the specific situation of fragmented farms. It provides flexibility in allowing the grass platform to be increased beyond walkable acres and increasing stocking density.

Zero grazing has been operated on Brookvale farm for seven years due to a fragmented grazing platform of 80 acres and family labour changes.  Richard currently cuts with a Grass Tech Pro-cut GT140 machine. 

With weather being a large determinate of timing of zero grazing, on the Lilburn farm cutting usually commences each year in early April. The length of the cutting season depends largely on grass growth and weather but usually the zero grazer is parked up in October. 2019 saw a management change whereby TMR was fed the whole year round, however Richard found this system costly and reverted back to the zero grazer for the current season.  Grass makes up a proportion of the diet as early as possible in spring and in a typical year 100 per cent grass diet is fed from late April onwards (covers cut around 3000 kg DM/ha).  Current intakes of the Brookvale herd stand at over 16 kg DM/cow/day of zero grazed grass.

Robotic Milking

After looking at a number of milking systems and considering the benefits of each, Richard decided to go with robotic milking.  In 2019 he purchased four Fullwood Merlin robots.  Rather than reducing overall labour input the aim of going the robotic route was to be more flexible with time for family life and not being curtailed by milking times.  Cows are divided over two houses with two robots and 114 cubicles of dimension 2.43m x 1.22m in each house. The cubicles are a cow-coon hybrid which offers the cows comfort with pasture mats and Prem-Pad and are bedded with a peat and lime mix.  Within each of the two sheds cows can travel anywhere in the building unimpeded and have free access to feeding, resting and milking at all times.  The system alone drives cow flow, with visits to the robots for milking averaging around three visits per day.

The cows are also foot bathed daily through the robot with four automatic baths.  Dermatitis incidences have dropped considerably since the cows go through the footbath more regularly with the solution changed every 75 cows.

Production in the Brookvale herd is currently averaging 33 litres of milk at four per cent butterfat and 3.55 per cent protein.  The diet fed ration is formulated to support 28 litres with cows eating on average 4kg concentrates and the maximum being fed through the robot at 12kg concentrates.

Other Technologies

Other technologies on the Brookvale farm include a slurry aeration system (automatic slurry blubber system, ASBS) which is an energy efficient method to ensure standard consistency and improved quality in stored slurry. 

Air is circulated through valves which are fixed to the base of the tank this air introduction encourages continuous agitation of the slurry meaning it is in spreadable condition at all times without the need to mechanically mix. 

A computerised heat detection system is used for the cows; each cow is fitted with a collar which monitors heat expression and transmits the data wirelessly to a computer or a smart device (mobile or tablet). Once heats are recorded then the animal can be served. 

Calves are fed through a Holm and Laue automatic feeder for 65 days from the age of one week.  As much as this piece of technology has been important for 15 years now, Richard says that having his mother rearing the calves is vital on Brookvale farm with attention to detail no less essential on the automatic system.

Technology is always at the forefront on the Brookvale Farm. Richard will continue to strive to increase efficiency and profitability whilst giving the necessary time to the family. Richard recently joined his local Business Development Group (BDG) and when meetings restart his group will surely be keen for him to host a meeting to view the various technologies used on the farm.

You can talk to your local CAFRE Dairying Development Adviser about potential technologies that you could adopt on the farm to improve efficiencies. Ring your own adviser directly or call 0300 200 7843 and ask to be directed to a local CAFRE dairying representative.

Notes to editors: 

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