MILKING robots has produced a big asset to a local farming business.

Kirkton of Beath Farm is a dairy and arable enterprise which started in 1894, run by David and Alice Thomson and son Fraser.

The family were milking 135 cows and were experiencing the challenges of labour costs and pressure to spend time in the dairy while managing seasonal busy periods at their arable business. In 2016, they started looking at automation as a way forward which would be able to solve these problems.

“Our goals starting this project and the main reason to invest was to increase milking the cows from 2 to 3 times a day, increase capacity and run our dairy enterprise with reduced labour costs,” said David Thomson. The project included refurbishment of their dairy and changing to cubicles from straw bedded courts, as well as adding automated milking robots.

The family looked at the competitive market and what was on offer including local dealer support. They built a close relationship with GEA dealer DairyFlow and flew all the way to the Netherlands to see the GEA DairyRobot R9500 for themselves. Impressed by its fast attachment, yet simple operational design and confident in the support they would receive from DairyFlow, the robots were going to be more than just a purchase.

David is of the opinion that the flexibility that the technology provides is a big thing to consider, especially for mixed farms like his: “An automated milking system just makes life easier and very much a good thing for family farms.

"An added benefit was that one supply unit can connect to three robots, therefore reducing costs. The biomass boiler provides free hot water and the milk cooling costs are minimal because of high capacity plate cooler with a slow steady throughout".

So they made the decision to invest in the future of their business and go from their 10 x 20 Westfalia SwingOver parlour to purchasing three GEA automated milking robots.

As David says: “It’s been a lifestyle change.” The first milking was in January 2018 and after months of hard work, they now look back at the decision as most definitely the right one. The robot has reached its targets in reducing cell count and mastitis rates on farm while increasing milk yields. Now they are milking on average 3-4 times a day and bactoscan averages 11 and cell count 165.

As this is still a project in its first stages and certainly an adjustment, there’s still room for improvement. Challenges came from working around the building work and training the cows to use the robot system. Initially, the milk output had dropped, but after 2 weeks recovered to starting levels, thereafter rising steadily. The balance between feed in the robot and at the feed fence is crucial to get visits and output.

Considering his thoughts on the future of the farming industry he’s been part of for 40 years, David feels that he’s made the right decision for his business and family.

“No one is going to be a millionaire out of it” he says, “But I’m glad to be in the milk industry over any other.

"We are delivering a fresh product supplied to local Sainsbury stores. A lot of challenges are potentially on the horizon, but also opportunities there to be made for a lot of people.”