THE Robertshaws came to Brockholme Farm, Streetlam near Northallerton, in 1987. With Tim’s son Joss back home full-time and in the business, a major investment to provide first-class facilities for the 140-strong dairy herd was long overdue on the 209-acre farm, where the soil lends itself to grass growth and dairying.

The new greenfield-sited development saw Joss visit farms far and wide before creating a bespoke facility for them, which incorporates three De Laval robots situated parallel to each other, with a single separation pen behind, and then a three span of cubicles with slatted concrete floors and slurry storage below.

Feeding is around the outside of the shed, but fully covered and with the only pillars on the external walls which surround the building, which creates a 40ft apex in the centre of the building, and a 15-degree pitch. The viewing area and office is a tin-clad build on top of the robots, that gives a bird’s eye view of the cows in cubicles and is suspended on a concrete panelled roof area, showing the dexterity of concrete panels now as a robust cost-effective building material, not only laterally but also as a floor/ceiling.

Three years in the making, the milking herd have now been robot milked for near on six months, and are settling to the system, although realistically performance is not expected to be truly maximised until each animal has completed a full lactation in the robot.

The farm itself is based on ensuring it remains profitable even on a relatively low milk price, which was the driver for going ahead with a 20-year payback investment.

Retaining a herd size of circa 140 allows the farm to be managed by Joss and father Tim, while the robots allow quality time off without reliance on highly skilled staff, as both father and son admit finding labour is a ongoing challenge,at the current size they can avoid having to man-manage, although the shed is designed so that without much further outlay an extra four bays and another robot could easily be installed, to increase numbers by a further 50 or so. An opening for a school leaver, apprentice of gap-year student may follow

Increasing the ME of home-grown silage, through a change in grass seed and reseeding plan, with a move to four cuts of silage, has seen yields improve and better silage has certainly helped profitability, says Joss, with less reliance on home-grown feed.

Initially feeding concentrates in the robots has been heavy at 6kg per head as a means to entice them in, but it is hoped this will soon be dropped, with the aim to drop it to 3kg as commonly seen in Denmark, where it is used alongside compact feeding, which Joss and his dad are also practising.

The high-concentrate feed rate had to be used initially to get the cows to come into the robots, while the compact feeding is favoured as there is less sorting of feeding, and it works well alongside the four cuts of grass silage, 60 acres of home-grown maize, and the home-grown wheat which is either rolled or caustic treated and fed to the herd. Gluco 16, a high-energy and highly palatable feed from Carrs Billington, has been successful at enticing cows into the robots.

The overall health and welfare of the herd has seen challenges over recent years, but with guidance from Kebir House Veterinary Practice these are being addressed.

The aim is to breed a non-extreme Holstein cow and solely breed the replacements required, with sexed semen used on any neospora negative animal for two or three times, with any neospora positive or Johnes positive animal bred straight to beef.

Belgian Blue is generally used on cows and Angus on the heifers with the resulting calves sold at eight to ten weeks of age through Leyburn, which means very few if any black-and-white bulls are born, which is one step ahead of the demands of milk buyer Arla. The cows are mated via Genus RMS and have been for many years since it reduces the staffing needs on farm.

A move to slatted flooring has been one of the teething problems of the new building, although time is proving to be the greatest healer, as the herd get used to the concrete.

Meanwhile foot bathing is occurring between two and three times a week, with it possible to section off row of cubicles and walk those cows through the three formalin-filled foot baths, and then return them through to their cubicles. An initial attempt to put a footbath on each robot exit proved ineffective – with Tim and Joss soon realising this was not going to be an effective foot-bathing method.

One area that the robots were a virtually instant winner on was cell counts, Joss explains that these had suffered particularly in the transition period between the old system and the new, when the very outdated and small cubicles were temporarily replaced with straw yards, which saw cell counts adversely affected although future improvement is still the aim, and cows are still being bred out with persistent cell count issues.

The De Laval robot, whose operating system incorporates many of the parts and fittings of a standard De Laval milking parlour, effectively pre-sprays and cleans the teat, and within its endless arsenal of information via the on-farm computer or the mobile phone apps gives a MDI (mastitis detection indicator) score, which when over 2.2 is highlighted red and rings alarm bells to Tim and Joss.

The workings of the robots themselves are under a monthly fixed-fee contract, which for the first year includes parts, labour and chemicals and sees one robot serviced each month, on a rolling three-month cycle, which is working well and aids financial planning and budgeting of the robots costs within the business.

While Tim and Joss are happy to admit the new facility has not all being plain sailing they have no regrets over taking the plunge to invest for a sustainable future.

Tim’s mother Dorothy is the third generation Robertshaw in the business and has seen dairying change immensely over her lifetime, and while the old facility near her house may soon see bed-and-breakfast pigs reside as another income stream, she can also see the farm’s dairy herd settled in its new home too.