Fifteen years ago North Antrim milk producers Bryan Watton, and son Mark, were the first farmers in Ireland to purchase two Lely Astronaut A2 robots.
“Robotic milking was revolutionary at the time,” recalls Bryan. “Several of the house-hold names involved in the manufacture of conventional milking parlours were trying to develop an automated system.
“I had been following the evolution of robotic milking technology in the farming press from 1994. By 1999 I had made up my mind that I was going to go down that route, and after studying the various options available I opted for Lely.
Brian continued: “Most of the other companies were dabbling and trying to incorporate parts of a parlour onto a robot. I was impressed with Lely, as their engineers were new to milking systems and started with a clean sheet. In my opinion Lely was away ahead of the competition with its concept and design.”
The Lely Astronaut A2 robots were installed back-to-back, and have been working on-farm since 4th April 2000.
Mark added: “It was an exciting time, and a move that put our Ballymoney farm firmly on the map. During the first year we had more than 3000 visitors from throughout Northern Ireland and further afield.
“We had visits from dairy discussion groups across the country, veterinary and DARD officials, and a visit from the British Agricultural Engineers. We even welcomed visitors from as far afield as Switzerland, South Africa and Australia.”
After 15 years both Bryan and Mark are as enthusiastic about Lely and robotic milking as they were then. “Robots transformed our farm, and there is no way we would even consider going back to conventional milking,” stressed Bryan. “In fact, we wouldn’t rule out purchasing a third Lely robot in the future.”
The father and son team milk 150 commercial cows producing an average yield of over 9,500kgs at 3.95% butterfat and 3.28% protein. Their enthusiasm for robotic milking has impacted on the immediate vicinity – with North Antrim boasting the highest population of Lely Astronaut robots in the British Isles.
Herd management is meticulous, and the high yields are achieved on a diet of grass silage or grazed grass depending on the season. “We don’t use a diet feeder,” explained Mark. “Our aim is to maximise milk from forage. The cows are happy and content, and receive concentrates in the robot, with the daily allocation determined by individual yield.”
Bryan admits that success in the early days was largely attributed to trial and error. “Not all cows are suitable for robotic milking. Over the years we have identified bulls and female lines suitable for breeding heifers with good teat placement. We now have seven generations of home-bred heifers milking in the herd.”
Using a combination of sexed semen and stock bulls, the herd breeding programme has been simplified thanks to the introduction of robot ready AI sires.
Jim Irwin, of Lely Center Eglish said: “Technology has advanced rapidly, and although Lely has further developed the Astronaut milking robot with the introduction of the A3, A3 Next and A4 models, the modular design of the A2 has allowed it to be upgraded over the years. The robots on the Watton farm use the same technology and software as the new models on the market.”
Bryan added: “I am delighted to prove the sceptics wrong. The Lely Astronaut is versatile, durable and reliable. Our robots were originally fitted by engineers Rodney Bond and Robert Glendenning, and after fifteen years they are still part of the team at Lely Center Eglish. The longevity of our robots can be attributed to the dedication, expertise and service of the Lely engineers.”
Lely is embarking on another historic first in Northern Ireland at Balmoral Show. Its live milking display featuring a purpose-built dairy with 40 cows from Draynes Dairies in Lisburn will take centre stage during the three-day event at Balmoral Park.