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Robots milking cows. The future of farming

PUBLISHED: 13:22 12 March 2015 | UPDATED: 13:22 12 March 2015

Father and son Jon and Ben Williams are delighted with their futuristic robotic milking system and specially-designed new barn

Father and son Jon and Ben Williams are delighted with their futuristic robotic milking system and specially-designed new barn

MATT AUSTIN

Kate Williams discovers why one Devon family has chosen to plough a huge amount of cash into the latest farming technique

How it works

The robots supply feed which draws the cows in of their own accord. The computer system knows which animal has entered, how much it weighs and how much to feed. An infra-red laser scans the animal to find the teats, cleans them, then puts the clusters on. The robot then takes the teat cups off individually when each one has finished so as not to over-milk.

Facts and figures

 Robot price: £360,000 for purchase of the robotic system.

 Milk yield: increased by six litres per cow, per day.

 Total investment: expected to be paid back within ten years.

 Time saving: Physical milking time reduced by 50 per cent, enabling more time for other duties.

 Animal milking life: prolonged by at least one year per cow.

If Devon farmer Jon Williams’ late father had been told his dairy herd would be milked by robots in 2015, he would have laughed disbelievingly. However, that is exactly what is happening at Higher Hampton Farm in Kilmington as 21st century technology hits the age-old occupation.

But it is Ben, Jon’s eldest son and the third generation of the family to work on the farm, who has been the driving force behind this radical change to their livelihoods.

Since the 1970s, much research has gone into investigating methods to alleviate time management constraints in conventional dairy farming, culminating in the development of the Automatic Milking System (AMS). ‘Voluntary milking’ allows the cow to decide its own milking time, rather than being milked as part of a group at set times, requiring complete automation of the milking process.

With huge benefits to lifestyle, profits and animal welfare, this robotic milking system is initially an expensive option so not a decision taken lightly.

Ben says: “I’d read about the AMS, but we first saw them in 2011 at a dairy show and I thought that’s got to be the way forward. We dismissed it at first because of the cost,” says Jon, who had to be convinced. “Then we realised we had to do something for the cow welfare. You had to see the robots to believe it. Once I actually saw it working on a farm, I was convinced.”

The changes this dynamic system offers for quality of working and social life are colossal, which was one of the main incentives to undertake the enormous project. The cost of installing the Lely Astronaut robots and building a specially designed barn to enable the system to work to its full potential were mighty, but the benefits it will bring are priceless.

The tie traditional milking has on farmers is so extreme it governs their movements and whereabouts every single day of the year. With the robotic system installed, the rigid, unsociable time restraints are eliminated making life easier, a particular draw for Ben, who has a young family.

“It means so much more flexibility,” says Ben. “Say you were milking for eight hours a day before, now we can do that in four hours with less people and less man hours It’s not so rigid and you’re not as tied. For me it means I have more family time.” Jon adds: “As long as the routine robot checks are made in the morning and evening, it doesn’t really matter what time it’s done.”

The herd of 220 cows being milked automatically by four robots may sound a little abnormal but it is actually a more natural process for the animals. Ben explains: “The cows are getting milked more times a day, more naturally. The idea is like when the cow has a calf, the calf would feed four or five times a day. With the robots, the cow is feeding as many times as she needs to get rid of the milk Her health is therefore better because she never gets bursting full of milk. This prolongs the milking life of an animal by at least a year.”

Increased production means the benefits to the future profits are also great, and have started to show surprising quickly. Within the first two weeks, the herd was producing more milk, exceeding what the family were expecting.

But despite the positives, this futuristic slant on farming may not suit everyone. Ben says: “It’s affordable as farmers have assets so banks are willing to lend money. Whether every farmer can deal with robots - and wants to - is another matter.

“I would say you need someone of the younger generation to run it, but obviously it prolongs the working life of an older farmer because they are not having to physically milk for eight hours a day.”

Jon’s grandfather put up the cash for Jon’s parents to buy the farm 60 years ago. Although a very forward-thinking man - this is the sixth different way of milking at Higher Hampton Farm in six decades - Jon’s late father would have found it difficult to visualise. “I think he would have had to see it to believe it!” laughs Jon.

Jon and his brother, Martin, took over the running of the farm from their parents and Ben joined when he left school at 16. It’s now his turn to drive the business forward. He says: “I think this is the future for family farming - it’s a much better way of life. There are other ways of milking that are probably as efficient that are right for other people but this is definitely the right way for us.”

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