Sarah Liddle finds out from The Johnsons how they are able to graze their herd outside for much of the year.

Just over two years ago, the Johnson family installed three De Laval voluntary milking systems (robots) to milk their 130 crossbred dairy herd near Danby Wiske, near Northallerton.

For Ross, his father Colin and Uncle Robin, it has enabled dairying to continue efficiently on this fifth generation dairy farm. What has been fundamental is the herd's ability to continue grazing and generally run as a lower input herd, which spends much of its year outside, with the main herd housed in the main cubicle shed where two robots are sited, and operating on a A, B and C grazing system, indicative of the cows being milked three times a day.

In essence, the herd is milked in the early hours or morning session before leaving the building and going out to graze in a designated first field or paddock. Then later in the day, the cows return to the robot for another milking, which once complete sees them directed to a second field/ paddock for afternoon or early evening grazing.

When they return to the robot to be milked for a third time in the 24-hour period they remain in the building overnight with access to a buffer feed of silage.

This system is proving to be extremely efficient between March and November during the grazing season for the lower-yielding cows. The second shed on the farm houses the third robot and is for the freshly-calved cows and those up to 150 days in milk.

The whole restructuring has seen several keys benefits for the Johnsons. Overall, cow health has seen a noticeable improvement with cell count in the herd falling from 150 to 120, alongside fewer cases of mastitis, better hoof health, as the cows are regularly foot bathed on leaving the robots, and heat detection is markedly improved.

A montbeliarde cross cow about to enter the Delaval VMS V310 at Low Whinholme

A montbeliarde cross cow about to enter the Delaval VMS V310 at Low Whinholme

The robots have made the work environment for the Johnson family more flexible, as well as needing less input of additional labour – enabling Ross to spend time with his young family and Colin and Robin to have a little more downtime as they advance in years.

Utilising the relatively cheaper produced grass in situ by cows grazing is important to the farm while yields have climbed due to the new system. Herd average is now 8000kg per cow per year at 4.5 per cent butterfat and 3.4 per cent protein which has seen an increase per cow of about 300 litres.

From a breeding perspective the herd is looking to maximise longevity, producing and breeding a robust cow that is of average stature, has good feet and legs and sound mammary.

The V310 model of the De Laval robot uses a camera for studying udder morphology and provides directional information to the individual teat cups for attachment to the udder. The technology continuously evolves to the changing shape and structure of the udder during a cow's or heifer's lactation.

With 50 years of DeLaval’s experience in milking machines, many of the parts are comparable with regular milking parlours, which aids repair and maintenance for both the Johnsons and service technicians in the case of more serious issues or problems.

The camera used on the robot is based on the one used on their milking parlour teat spray system – ensuring it has been rigorously tried and tested and ensures continuity of technology. The camera self teaches, which means that the initial training of the cows to a robot milking system can be potentially easier and less human dependant than some other robotic milking systems.

The herd has used a cross of Friesian, Swedish Red and also Montbeliarde in recent years to produce a grazing crossbred cow, with some less extreme Holsteins now used by Ross on cows needing more production adding, while cows that are too extreme and ‘dairylike’ in their conformation are bred to the more dual purpose Montbeliarde breed.

Off farm, 60 followers are also reared to provide replacements, with about 30 entering the herd each year. Yet again, it is important to recognise technology is evolving to be fit for purpose – for farmers still keen to graze cows and run a herd outside, the robots on today's market can offer that facility with plenty of traditional and added benefits.

One farmer suggested at the recent on-farm open day hosted by the Johnsons that farms may only be one step away from a mobile robot that can be generator run and move around the farm and grazing platform milking cows, thereby avoiding the need for expensive infrastructure and buildings.

Time enables enhanced and improved technology and constant upgrades from all robotic milking system manufacturers. The drawback or stumbling block to the farmer's suggestion may simply be the great British weather more so than the technology!

And as Robin explains: “I like to see cows outside and we have bred a grazing cow so it seemed sensible to still have a system that suited the cows here at Low Whinholme – something we have achieved with the DeLaval robot. As such we are in a position where there is scope to expand and add more cows and more robots if we so wish in the future.”