Dairy Farming at Pitt Farm
First of all a reminder that Pitt Farm is a working dairy farm. There are tractors and machinery moving at all times and it is not always easy for the operator to see people standing around so please do not enter the farmyard unless accompanied by a member of staff. It is generally very quiet at night but there are vehicles such as the Milk Tanker which can come very late some nights. So you might hear that driving through.
We have about 130 cows at present so by some standards we are actually quite a small operation but we do produce about 1.3 million litres of milk per year or about 3,500 litres a day. We have two milking robots which were installed in 2012 and as we will describe below it has made a huge difference to how we and the cows operate. Prior to that we would start work at about 6am and get the cows in for milking, they would gather in a yard and queue up to enter the milking parlour where there would be 8 cows on each side and the dairy person would wash the udders and attach the teat cups and the cows would be fed some feed suplement whilst being milked and the teat cups would come off when the milk stopped flowing. This process took about 3 hours including washing down and was repeated later in the day at about 5pm. During the day there would be numerous jobs to carry out on the farm including bringing in Silage for the cows to eat see below. The work involves long hours and is 365 days a year including Chistmas, one of the problems is finding staff who are reliable and take care of our cows reliably and sensitively as we do know them all and they do have personalities. So in 2012 the decision was made to invest in two milking robots. This has transformed the operation of the farm in a number of ways and the only redundancy was Barney the sheep dog who took early retirement and can sometimes be seen wandering around the farm.
So the farm was reorganised and the machines installed. The first problem was to get the cows to understand how to use them and this took a few weeks but once a few got the hang of it the others followed. Basically the cows now live in a large shed with individual cubicles as in the picture but they can also go outside They lie on rubber mats with straw or sand or sawdust to keep them clean. When the cow wants to be milked she goes to her preferred robot and quietly waits in an orderly queue (they are identical robots but they each seem to prefer one particular machine even if the other is free). During milking the cow is recognised by a pendant around her neck and given a specific amount of feed supplement, she is weighed and the milk quality tested and quantity recorded. A computer keeps a record of everything that goes on with each cow and can flag up any health issues. We also have a system called "Graze Gate" where if the cows want to go outside (and in winter they often prefer to stay in) then the computer allows them to go to specific fields.
The result of all of this is that the cows are no longer herded in for milking and are much more relaxed and this shows up in a number of ways such as they manage their own milking and the average is about 2.7 times a day rather than the twice a day previously. They are also much more friendly and don't tend to back away when you approach, vet bills have fallen and the cows seem to be living longer . Oh and one final point, Michael still wakes up at 5:30 am but now has a cup of tea and looks at his laptop every morning for an overnight report rather than getting the cows in. He is still busy but doing things which affect animal welfare, after all if the cows are happy then he is happy!
Note about Calves
With a herd this size calves are being born every few days and you may sometimes see a cow in a field with her newly born calf. Cows are very protective of their young so you must never approach at this time (especially with a dog).
Making Silage is a way of storing grass for use in the winter. Although during the summer the cows can eat outside it is necessary to grow grass for use in the winter time. The grass is cut with a mower and bailed up and/or put into a large area called a silage pit then squashed and rolled with a tractor and finally covered with a black plastic sheet which is weighed down with old tyres. In this anerobic (no air) situation the cellulose in the grass breaks down to various sugars and the grass is effectively"pickled" and preserved for use when the grass growth slows and in the winter. Sileage cutting starts usually in May and there will be three or four cuts during the season.
Cows gaming the system
Since cows are given a food suplement when they are milked some will come back time and time again but the system recognises when they were last milked and sends them on their way.