For this week’s Dairy Focus, Agriland made the trip to Co. Antrim to meet with Conor Casey on his dairy farm near the town of Cloughmills.
Conor is milking 240 Holstein Friesian cows with four GEA robots, in a fully housed system.
There are also two poultry sheds on the farm, with seven crops of 36,000 birds produced/year, which Conor said is a great income source when milk price in down.
Originally a mixed-enterprise farm with dairy and sheep, after attending agricultural college in Greenmount, Conor returned home and began developing the farm alongside his father.
At the time he returned home, the farm consisted of around 40 dairy cows and roughly 200 ewes.
A poultry shed was built on the farm, with a factory based in Ballymena. Conor said it was a good way of diversifying, as the farm is 600ft above sea level.
A second poultry shed has since been built.
The sheep enterprise was slowly phased out. Conor said that at the time, the worst-performing dairy herd was more profitable than the best sheep farms.
The decision was then made to focus more on the dairy enterprise, with the poultry units supporting this.
The dairy herd was slowly expanded through the purchase of quota; by 2000, the herd had grown to around 80 cows.
In 2005, a new GEA 16-unit milking parlour was installed on the farm, with about 120 cows being milked.
By 2008, the herd size had increased to around 150 cows.
Up until this point, the herd would have been grazing.
In 2010, the decision was made to move to a fully housed system. This decision was made for a number of reasons, but the land block around the parlour being 50ac was the key factor.
The herd also moved to three times/day milking at this time, which increased production further.
A multi-cut silage system was now being operated on the farm, with numbers on the farm continuing to grow.
In 2017 the farm moved further into technology and renewable energy, with robots, solar panels and wind turbines.
According to Conor the herd was in between two and three robots, but the contract rearing of the heifers allowed for the installation of three robots and an increase in cow numbers to 200.
A fourth robot has since been purchased and the herd has increased to 240 cows.
Conor has also started growing some cereals to reduce the nitrogen loading on the farm and these crops are used to feed the cows.
On this dairy farm a huge focus is placed on silage quality, with Conor noting that: “Forage quality is king.”
A multi-cut system is working well in this regard. Silage is being harvested very five weeks during the summer months.
This means that four silage crops are harvested by August, which means a fifth can be taken if required.
Mazie and whole-crop are also grown to feed the cows and are fed to the cows in a total mixed ration (TMR), with cows fed concentrates in the parlour.
The Carnhill herd is a fully pedigree-registered herd, with Conor focusing on higher index – Profitable Lifetime Index (PLI) – type cows. This has resulted in a demand for heifers and a number of bulls being sold into artificial insemination (AI).
A total of 12 bulls have been sold into AI from the herd.
“We are always trying to push genetics, push yields and push profitable cows,” Conor said.
Speaking about the cow type he is looking for and what he looks for when he is picking bulls, Conor said: “Historically, I would have been picking high-PLI bulls, but some of them I’m just not as happy with.
“The index is very geared towards a smaller-type cow – so I’m now looking more at American indexes.
“I feel the cows have lost a little bit of milk in the last few years. The PLI index is geared towards health and fertility which is all good and you want it, but if you are a robotic system you want 35L/day everyday of the year.”
The herd is genomic tested so only the best cows are used for generating heifers.
Wagyu sires are used on cows that are not being used to generate replacements, with sexed semen used for dairy sires.
The herd has an average production of 10,500L, and Conor said that the use of PLI has meant the components in the herd are good.
Average protein is 3.4% and fat is 4.35%, with the herd producing on average, 800kg of milk solids.
A key area that Conor is now focusing on with the herd is milking speed.
The average milking speed on the farm is 2.6L/minute, but one of the sheds has an average milking speed of 3.6L/minute – which would means that a robot could be producing one million litres/year.
“Milking speed is not something you really think about until you go robotic, but for this system to work as efficiently as possible you need to get cows milked as quickly as possible,” Conor explained.
Labour played a major role in the decision to move into robots. The three times/day milking meant that the labour requirement was high and according to Conor, there were times that you would struggle to get people to milk.
Conor also said the robots provide better work-life balance.
“We all like to work, but we also like to get away for a few days,” he said.
The decision to go with GEA robots was aided by the knowledge that had been gained by milking in a GEA milking parlour.
“Our GEA parlour, we had for 15 years, and it was really reliable, German built and it was the same running gear as the parlour.
“I like the pit system and manual attachment for freshly calved heifers and reliability has been really good and dealer support has also been great,” the farmer said.
The four robots are set up across three sheds, with one shed having two robots and the other sheds having one each.
Technology plays a major role on this farm, as mentioned. Along with the robots, all the cows have health/heat detection monitoring collars.
The health monitoring system was installed the year before the robots, but Conor believes it is more invaluable in a robotic system as you are not having contact with cows everyday.
He said the health monitoring system and the robots mean that he continually has information on every cow and that sick cows are much easier to identify and treat.
Sustainability plays a major role on the farm, with all the slurry spread using low emission slurry spreading (LESS) and an increased focus on renewable energy. All the poultry litter is sent to an anaerobic digester.
Commenting on future plans for the farm, Conor said that there are no plans to increase cow numbers much further.
Conor is also looking at robotic feeding, which will help save on labour and increase the consistency of the feed.
He is also looking at moving away from diesel to renewable energy that is generated on the farm.
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