THE prospect of the next generation joining the family farming business prompted the Fox family to replace their 40-year-old milking parlour with a new robot installation.
While it was clear the existing milking system would have to be replaced or upgraded, it was the ‘next generation’ which provided the final trigger for a £500,000 investment in a new dairy complex, including robotic milking, at Holly House Farm, Lancaster.
The modern unit has now been in use for just over a year and, while some lessons have been learned, the overall unit is working well, with the Holstein Friesian dairy herd adapting readily from parlour to robotic milking.
Holly House Farm has been home to the Fox family since 1880, originally as tenants and more recently as owner-occupiers.
It is made up of 121ha (300 acres) of mostly long-term grass and 11ha (28 acres) of woodland and is home to the Holleth pedigree Holstein herd. The land is relatively heavy clay and loam.
The family team is made up of Derek and Eileen Fox, their son Neil, and daughter-in-law Tracey. A key influence on recent developments has been 16-year-old grandson, Daniel, a student at Garstang Community High School, who is keen to join the family farming business.
Derek says: “The Holleth prefix was one of the first to be registered with the then British Friesian Cattle Society in the 1930s when my grandfather, Henry, was one of the first to introduce Friesian cattle into this country.
“Before the robots were installed, we ran a simple system with 120 milkers, self-feed silage, parlour-fed concentrates and a milking parlour which was more than 40 years old.
“The parlour was originally a 6:12 and was later extended to a 12:12. Milking took three hours morning and night.”
While Mr Fox says the system worked well, like many other dairy farmers, the family had tended to hold back on upgrading the dairy because of low milk prices.
“The real reason for changing now is because our grandson, Daniel, is extremely enthusiastic about farming and wants to join the business,” he says.
At first Mr Fox looked at replacing the parlour, together with a new dairy, but the only place this could have gone with the existing buildings was the youngstock building and it would have taken up to three-quarters of it.
“We then saw an advert for second hand robot milkers and decided to take a look at them. Part of the attraction was these would take up much less space than a new parlour.”
Mr Fox says after looking at the second hand units, and taking into consideration the costs of moving and installing them, they would be better off buying new.
He says it soon became clear whatever milking system they chose, it would be best if it was linked to a new dairy building. Robots would mean this building could be smaller than for other options.
“We spent some time looking at various robot milking systems and settled on a three-robot installation. The new building also includes a new dairy, office, and cubicles for 100 cows, together with a central feeding passage.
“The cubicles were larger at 8ft long than the 7ft long cubicles in the existing cattle housing.”
Mr Fox says the herd quickly adjusted to the new robot milkers, with only one animal having to be sold because she could not adapt.
Feeding is silage, a little straw and a blend, fed along the central feed passage using a mixer wagon with concentrate feeding as an incentive to use the robots.
“At the moment we have about 142 milkers, with about 35 home-bred heifers to join the herd shortly.
“We think about 60 cows per robot is about right for cows giving 9,000 to 10,000 litres. The new building has been designed to provide feeding space for 180 cows.”
Before moving to the robots, the herd was averaging about 8,300 litres. Since robotic milking began, it has risen to about 9,000 litres. Quality is 3.94 per cent fat and 3.14 per cent protein, with a cell count of 124.
“We can’t say the increase is just the result of changing to robot milking as there will be other factors involved, including change of diet,” says Mr Fox.
“The system is showing our high yielders are using the robots about five times a day, with a herd average of 3.1 times per day, which we think is right.”
The Holleth herd calves all year round with all replacements home-bred. Pedigree breeding is a mix of natural service and AI, with heifers calving down at about two-and-a-half years of age. All heifers and some first lactation animals are put to a Limousin bull for ease of calving.
All male black and white calves are sold. Limousin-sired calves are retained and reared, with most sold as 18-month-old stores through Lancaster Auction Mart.
In the past, pedigree Holstein heifers have been sold through Lancaster, but in recent years all have been retained for home use.
“We sell our milk to Wisemans on a Sainsbury’s contract, which overall works well for us. It does mean some extra work and inspections, but this is to be expected.
“This means we need a steady supply of milk all year round. Our grazing is essentially set stocking, with leys reseeded as necessary,” says Mr Fox.
“Financially the robots cost about £300,000 and about another £200,000 will have been spent on the new building and related items.
“This has been financed by a mix of our own funds and borrowing over eight years. We have been lucky to have excellent support and advice from our bank manager and accountants.”
Mr Fox says while the main reason for the investment was to make sure there is a strong up-to-date system for future generations, the robots have also made a bit difference for the family, who are now not tied to morning and night milking.
“However, not having physical contact with the cows at morning and night milkings does mean we need to spend more time among the cows watching them and checking them.
“Overall we feel the new facilities have worked well. What is interesting is the cows tend to favour the old, smaller cubicles in the old building at night to the larger cubicles in the new building. The old building also has a low roof compared to the high roof of the new building.”
Mr Fox says the ridge of the new building is covered with ventilators, but the number of cobwebs show this is not working properly, so this will be replaced with an open ridge system.
“If we were installing the robots again, we would avoid having two with exits facing each other, each with its own holding pen. We feel it would be better to have a single holding pen serving both units.
“The slurry system remains the same and will cater for the additional cows. The lagoon is emptied conventionally if the ground allows, and using an umbilical system if the ground is wet. The housing has an automatic scraper system,” he says.
“Apart from handling the milk, the new system provides a great deal of detailed information, which Neil and Daniel study closely.
“Overall, we feel there is a solid future for dairying. While Daniel is keen to come into dairy farming, we also hope systems such as robot milking will mean he will have a slightly better quality of life than we had when we were young,” says Mr Fox.
Holly House Farm facts
- The farm covers 121 hectares (328 acres), of which 11ha (28 acres) is woodland. All the land lies within a ring fence and the farm buildings are roughly in the centre of the holding
- Robotic milking was introduced in January last year and replaced a 40-year-old 6:12 parlour.
- Milking used to take three hours twice a day.
- Herd average has risen from 8,300 litres to about 9,000 litres since robotic milking started, but, says Mr Fox, this is not solely due to the new milking system
- The herd is all year round calving to ensure an even supply of milk for a Wiseman/Sainsbury’s milk contract
- Mr Fox’s grandfather, Henry, was one of the first UK farmers to run a British Friesian dairy herd. He was also a noted Shire horse breeder and showman