Using technology for a sustainable dairy system

Duchy College’s Future Farm in Cornwall stands out from the crowd with its translucent, arched roof, side vents and automated feeding system.

It’s an innovative design that places the cow at its heart, whilst delivering on the college’s aims of creating a sustainable dairy system, explains Paul Ward, Duchy College Project Manager.

“The ultimate aim is to develop a milk production system for the future, so it needs to be sustainable in all ways; socially, environmentally and economically. And it does all of those things,” he says.

It’s this that made the 220-cow unit an ideal choice for Mole Valley Farmers’ Focus Farms group. The group has been specially selected to showcase innovative dairy businesses that place particular attention on the cow, environmental management and profitability.

The aim of the Future Farm is to serve as a cutting edge educational facility, bridging the gap between innovative dairy practices and the next generation of farmers. Showcasing best practice, technologies and research will ultimately help inspire them to lead the industry forward.

The building includes four main design features:

1. Temperature and humidity controlled environment

The building follows a Dutch design and has a multi-arched roof made of a synthetic, translucent material designed to deliver plenty of light and air, without the addition of radiant heat.

Farm Manager, Anthony Baggaley says the building is as close to natural daylight as possible, which makes for a pleasant environment for both cows and staff.

Vents in the roof and side curtains automatically open and shut based on the temperature and humidity in the shed. “Even in very hot conditions it’s noticeable how comfortable it is,” says Paul.

2. Designed with the cow in mind

The herd relocated to the greenfield site in November 2020. The system is in stark contrast to the old set-up, which had won an award as a model farm in the seventies. Paul says the new system ensures cows have the space and comfort to express their natural behaviour and meet their genetic potential.

“When we moved, we were still feeding the same amount but getting better production as every cow was getting their share. The milk went up nearly 500 litres,” he explains (see table), adding that the herd reduced slightly from 300 to 220 cows following the move. 

The shed is designed with no dead-ends and flexible, plastic cubicles to reduce knocks on the cows. Segregation gates next to the parlour are also close to the calving pens, allowing easy, low stress separation. Anthony says: “It’s nice to have the calving facilities where they get milked. That’s really good. It means you’re not constantly moving cows around the farm.”

3. Early health alerts

Conductivity meters in the parlour, activity collars and on farm mastitis testing kits are all in operation with the view to picking up early signs of disease.

“It means you can pick up mastitis quicker than you can see it. It probably means we’re picking it up one day ahead of physical signs,” Anthony says. As a result, the team can get in early with udder mint and non steroidal anti-inflammatories with the aim of getting on top of the problem before antibiotics are used. 

The farm has also just started trialling on-farm culturing. This enables the causal pathogen to be identified in milk samples from cows with early signs of mastitis. An appropriate  treatment strategy can then be designed that will deliver the best results.

Cow collars also pick up any drops in activity or changes in rumination rates which can provide an early individuation of disease. For example, a drop in rumination rate and increased lying times could be an early sign of a left displaced abomasum in fresh cows.

4. Automatic feeding 

The herd is fed using an automated system which can mix and deliver multiple diets to different groups of cows in the shed.

Feed is stored in a ‘feed kitchen’ at one end of the building. There are four forage bays, which are manually loaded with blocks of forage. The system then automatically cuts off the required amount of each forage which is then moved along a conveyer to the robot mixer. The robot mixer then moves to the four mineral augers and two blend augers for filling, before moving to the relevant group of cows in the shed and automatically feeding the ration out along the feed fence.

Senior Nutritionist for Mole Valley Feed Solutions, Dr Robin Hawkey and Nutritionist, Pete Reis handle the nutrition for the farm. Robin says: “The biggest thing is the regularity of feeding, together with increased accuracy, better intakes and more consistent rumen pH. It feeds each group seven times a day.”

Although the system improves consistency and mixing accuracy, a recent breakdown has caused the team to reflect that in hindsight, it would have been better to have designed the shed to allow conventional feeding with a wagon. At present, passageway width and gate location does not allow for this.

However, when the system is running, Anthony says the whole set-up – which includes automatic scrapers – facilitates labour efficiencies. “You often need another person to feed and scrape and this system means you don’t need it. It reduced labour so you’ve got more time to spend elsewhere, managing the cows.”

BOX: Carbon footprint trial

The automated feeding system has helped facilitate a farm study which will asses how milk constituents and finances are affected by halving the carbon footprint of dairy diets.

Production figures before and after moving to the Future Farm

Old Duchy dairy siteAfter moving into the new Future Farm building in November 2020 (Mole Valley Farmers started in September 2021)Current performance (June 2023)
Yield (litres per cow per year)7,900 litres 8,300 litres 9,070 litres 
Milk butterfat (%)3.60%4.20%4.49%
Milk proteins (%)3.26%3.38%3.49%