‘A lot of com­mer­cial farm­ers are buying ro­bots and tak­ing out par­lours – these guys are not fools’

Michael Downey made the switch to a ro­botic milk­ing sys­tem six years ago and be­lieves the tech­nol­ogy is the way for­ward for the ma­jor­ity of Ir­ish dairy farm­ers

Irish Independent - Farming - - FEATURE -

‘Many early adopters of milk­ing par­lours were laughed at too, but you don’t see many lads now milk­ing with buck­ets.” that’s Kilkenny dairy farmer Michael Downey’s take on re­cent crit­i­cisms of ro­botic milk­ing.

A pioneer of the tech­nol­ogy in Ire­land, he has set up a con­sul­tancy to help other farm­ers make the switch to ro­bot­ics.

He switched to ro­botic milk­ing in 2014 on the fam­ily farm in Windgap where they were milk­ing 70 cows at the time. “Milk­ing on the home farm in­volved us go­ing out the pub­lic road. My fa­ther al­ways used to say one of our out farms was a more suit­able dairy plat­form, but it was eight miles away.”

Michael con­sid­ered mov­ing the cows down there and in­stalling a reg­u­lar milk­ing par­lour, but changed his mind after at­tend­ing a ro­botic milk­ing open day on a farm in Tip­per­ary in 2013.

“I put one and one to­gether and I got two. I said ‘I’ll put a ro­bot down there in­stead’. In the space of three months, I had my­self con­vinced into buying one,” he says.

The following June, Michael turned off the milk­ing par­lour on the home farm for the last time and brought the cows down to the out­farm and the ro­bot.

“It was a big fi­nan­cial move at the time, even with the ro­bot and the milk tank be­ing grant-aided, and we had to build a shed.

“We spent €130,000 on the ro­bot, €130,000 on build­ing and then bought the bulk tank. It was re­ally a green­field site,” Michael ex­plains.

De­spite the big money in­volved, he de­scribes it as the best in­vest­ment he’s ever made.

“I was in my late 30s at the time and milk­ing cows is not ev­ery­one’s favourite job. It’s seven days a week. Cutting back on work was another key mo­ti­va­tor,” he says.

“All of a sud­den we went from hav­ing five hours a day gone be­tween get­ting cows in and milk­ing and get­ting them out again, right down to 30-40 minutes a day with the ro­bot. It was a mas­sive sav­ing and that 40 minutes could be down to 10 if you were in a hurry and the cows would be milked just as good.”

Michael ex­plains that the work­load on the orig­i­nal farm set-up “was gone into two labour units”.

“Dad and I were there at the time, sadly he is no longer with us, but he was kind of cutting back. We have three 80-acre farms, and a good bit was go­ing on and the labour certainly was a chal­lenge.

“Now the farm can be worked as one labour unit with the ro­bot. That is de­spite the fact there would be two units of work if you spoke to a Tea­gasc per­son cal­cu­lat­ing it based on live­stock units”.

With the ro­bot, the time saved ev­ery­day com­pounds, says Michael, not­ing that Tea­gasc would say it’s 22

Ef­fi­cient:

Michael Downey says he re­duced the time spent milk­ing from five hours a day to 30-40 minutes with the ro­botic milk­ing sys­tem in­stalled on an 80ac out­farm hours a week or 37pc less time spent milk­ing.

“After two weeks that’s 44 hours, that’s a lot of time to spend do­ing the other jobs that need do­ing on the farm.”

Apart from the ob­vi­ous ad­van­tages of get­ting the cows off the road and the labour and lifestyle ben­e­fits, there are other ad­van­tages.

“The ro­bot al­ways milks the cows the same way,” says Michael.

“Ro­botic milk­ing has shown that it fa­cil­i­tates higher milk yields, hap­pier cows and im­proved health amongst the herd.”

Daily re­ports on health, so­matic cell count, pro­tein, but­ter­fat, lac­tose and fer­til­ity from the ro­botic sys­tem en­ables the farmer to mon­i­tor the health and performanc­e of each in­di­vid­ual cow much more closely, he says.

Costs

Michael in­stalled his second Lely ro­bot in 2016 and grant aid again took the brunt of the cost.

“We are milk­ing 120 cows now. I didn’t go look­ing to fill it up or anything. They (ro­bots) work bet­ter when they are not flat out,” he says, high­light­ing that 70 cows per ro­bot is a fig­ure that most farm­ers use as a yard­stick.

Michael es­ti­mates that the ro­bot will pay for it­self in seven years and be­lieves there is no rea­son why a ro­bot can­not be suit­able in the vast ma­jor­ity of dairy set-ups.

“The av­er­age new en­trant, say a for­mer suck­ler farmer, it would cost him after the grant some­where be­tween €120,000-150,000 to do the build­ing and buy the ro­bot,” Michael says, adding that they would ob­vi­ously need to price a par­lour too.

“I had a farmer case re­cently where the par­lour was about €50,000 cheaper, but he was talk­ing about a very basic par­lour. It’s im­por­tant farm­ers com­pare like with like and con­sider the costs of heat de­tec­tion, cell counter, and hav­ing to milk the cows.

‘If you look at other coun­tries, we are at the bottom of a curve head­ing steeply up­wards’

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