Robotic milking transforms the Donnell family’s farming day in Co Tyrone

The GEA DairyRobot R9500 (formerly Monobox) has transformed the milking operation on the Donnell family farm, which became the first to install the state-of-the-art system in Northern Ireland.

Case Studies: Hall Donnell GEA

Robotic milking transforms the Donnell family’s farming day in Co Tyrone

Case Studies: Hall Donnell GEA

The GEA DairyRobot R9500 (formerly Monobox) has transformed the milking operation on the Donnell family farm, which became the first to install the state-of-the-art system in Northern Ireland.

Derick, Sylvia and Hall Donnell have been milking approximately 100 Holstein-Friesian cows since they took over the 73ha farm on the edge of Ballymagorry village, near Strabane, Co. Tyrone in 1989.

Since installing the robotic milking system, milking frequency has increased, instances of lameness have been reduced, cell count has been dramatically lowered, and teat condition has been improved - and that’s not to mention the time that’s been freed up for other duties on the busy farm.

The cows were previously milked twice daily at 5:00am and 5:00pm, with an emphasis on grass production and feeding from mid-March until mid-November, depending on annual conditions.

Hall Donnell says: “Now the cows are milking three times a day; they are carrying less milk and not waiting around to be milked. I have noticed an improvement in legs and lameness.
“Cell counts always ran around 150 over the last few years. For the last few months, we are down around 90; it has increased slightly recently as cows are due for drying off. The conductivity is so accurate it allows me to get in early and treat with udder mint; the Monobox also allows me to separate per quarter, giving me more control.

“In the last couple of weeks when I started drying off cows, I noticed a huge improvement in teat condition; they are soft and healthy looking and there are no signs of warts or cuts on them. The cows’ temperament has changed; they are quieter to work with.”

And the benefits do not end there for Hall, whose daily routine has been transformed, giving him more time to focus on other important jobs around the farm.

“I don’t set the alarm anymore; in the morning, I just get up when I wake.
“I had a lot of work to catch-up with after the start-up, and we are building the separation area; but it’s amazing how much more time I have.

“The flexibility is great, if I’m at silage or spreading slurry. I don’t have to stop to get cows in and can just carry on and get the job finished.”

The Donnell family farmyard is centrally situated in the farm, with approximately 39ha around the yard and the remainder in outlying farms.

In 2011, they installed a 14-unit, 90-degree Milfos swing over parlour from McKnight Dairy Services.

Introducing robotic milking to their farm was always in mind for the Donnell family and, when a 12,000l GEA tank was installed in 2012, it needed to be robot ready.

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Donnell family farm objectives:

  • Maximise overall farm profit
  • Have a labour-efficient working environment
  • Utilise forage from both grass and ensiled grass to its full potential
  • Make efficient use of nutrients (fertiliser and slurry) while meeting current nitrates legislation

When the Donnell family began thinking about upgrading their out-of-parlour feeders, they got in touch with us at McKnight Dairy services.

After a few visits from James McKnight, accompanied by Roy Clarke from GEA Ireland, Hall says “the option of going ahead with robotic milking looked more appealing with the introduction of the Monobox to Northern Ireland”.

“The milk price was good, and we could see the potential benefits to our farm objectives and lifestyle - but really, the cows made the decision.

“Yields were steadily increasing each year, from 7,200l in 2010 to 9,600l [in 2019]. Cows needed milking three times a day,” Hall explains.

Installation and training
The installation was swift. The bespoke design was provided by GEA’s Declan Casey, who provides technical support to our team at McKnight Dairy Services.

“James, David and their team at McKnight do very tasty work, and were very efficient with the installation,” Hall says.

The GEA robotic milking solution’s open design, silent operation and quick attachment, made getting started simple for the Donnell family.

“For two days we penned the cows behind the robots and guided them. Over the next two weeks, the number of cows we needed to collect dropped every day,” Hall says.

A grazing plan and layout were designed by GEA to ensure cows have access to grass for 16 hours each day on around 20ha and eight hours at the feed fence, depending on weather conditions and time of year.

Following the first two weeks, cows were given access to grass using a selection gate. Cows get access to Block A from 2:00am to 10:00am (after milking). Upon their return for a second milking, they are given access to fresh grass in Block B from 10:00am to 6:00pm.

All cows that come in after 6:00pm have access to the feed fence and can stay in for the night.

“Allocation of grass is very important to encourage cows to move voluntarily. May was a difficult time to start this year with a big flush of grass; but once I got used to the new allocation, and we got around the block a couple of times, the cows were coming really well – with no cows to collect since mid-Summer,” says Hall.

Now that a robotic milking solution from McKnight Dairy Services has transformed Hall’s working day, he has set new goals for the Donnell family farm.

He aims to achieve: “1 million litres from 100 cows or less” and “continue to enjoy farming.”