‘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
‘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
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.
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’