Using a ‘robotic’ teat spray and taking steps to improve housing has helped one Suffolk-based producer to tackle a lingering udder-health issue. We find out more about how he took control.
As featured in Cow Management Magazine May 2023.
When Robert Crawford first switched to robotic milking he thought udder health would remain unchanged. But pressures on staff after installing the automated system, combined with the additional stress on cows caused by a change in set-up, saw Bactoscan levels double from a TBC of 25 to 60 and mastitis rates climb from 25% to 60%.
Somatic cell counts also spiked at 300,000 cells/ml for the 175-cow herd, which is currently averaging 10,000 litres at 4.4% butterfat and 3.4% protein. Robert runs the all-year-round calving herd, based at Longwood House near Bungay in Suffolk, as part of a mixed farming enterprise alongside his uncle, David, and his father, Tom. He recalls feeling despondent for the first few months after turning off the unit’s previous DeLaval 12-aside parlour in 2016 in favour of two DeLaval robots.
“The whole changeover was hard work and we were short-staffed. Things were quite tough and I think dad would have sold the robots after three months, but I’m glad we persisted,” he says.
There were a lot of changes on the unit in summer 2020, including the installation of fans, and a switch in cubicle bedding material and pre- and post-milking sprays, which saw the herd turn a corner.
Robert Crawford: “Since making the switch, teat condition has improved”
The robots were retrofitted into an old cubicle shed, which Robert says was less than ideal. The first two
robots were installed using a feed-first traffic system, where cows are given access to them from the feed
area via smart selection gates.
The herd is housed all year and fed a TMR comprising grass and maize silage, nutritionally-improved straw, chopped straw, home-grown rolled wheat, an 18% protein concentrate, rape meal, bicarb, minerals, and yeast. This provides maintenance plus 28 litres and individual cows are then topped up to yield with an 18% protein concentrate through the robots.
Cows visit the robots to be milked 2.7 times a day, on average. To improve the cow house environment,
the Crawfords installed six DeLaval roof-mounted fans. These are run automatically using humidity
and temperature sensors that generate an index and dictate the speed of the fans.
“The fans never go off. They ‘idle’ at 20% in late winter/early spring, but in the summer they’re running flat out,” says Robert.
At the same time, he switched from using chopped straw on cubicle beds to mattresses and sawdust in a
bid to reduce the bacterial load. The final piece of the jigsaw was changing the teat spray from an iodine-based solution to a product more suited the automatic milking. He now uses EnviroCare Teat for Robots – a naturally derived broad-spectrum antimicrobial spray.
It is specifically formulated by EnviroSystems for robotic milking systems. The product is applied by the
robotic arm and has a ‘thinner’ consistency to prevent accumulation in the cluster head.
The product is a available as a spray or dip. It contains surfactants to dissolve and remove dirt, without the use of harsh chemicals such as iodine, chlorhexidine, formalin, or metal ion sulphates, like copper and zinc, that can dry and damage the skin.
Because these surfactants are naturally occurring chemicals, the spray is certified organic, and it achieved a kill rate of 99.99% against Staph aureus, E coli and Strep uberis in external tests, passing the EN1656 approval process.
When the herd was milked through a conventional parlour the Crawfords used to use foam and wipe cows pre milking, but the robots have just one spray line so the same product must be used pre- and post-milking. Teats had also become extremely dry and cracked while using the iodine-based product and Robert believes this was exacerbating the herd’s mastitis problem. “Since switching to the robotic product, teat condition has improved.”
The spray is formulated to prioritise teat health and work with the cow’s innate defence systems, rather
than focus purely on antimicrobial killing activity. Because teat condition has improved, Robert has
started applying lime, instead of an expensive alternative, to cubicles daily without worrying it will
dry out cows’ teats. “I was previously cautious about how much lime we
used, but now I use it every day and it has no adverse effect on teat condition,” he adds.
“The herd’s Bactoscan fell almost immediately – from 60 to 29. The spray, which is used both pre- and postmilking, contains a higher lactic acid concentration compared to the previously used iodine product, and I think this has a more effective ‘kill’,” explains Robert.
Mastitis rates fell to 20% with somatic cell counts now averaging 190,000 cells/ml. This has stopped the business being penalised under its Arla 360 milk contract, and the teat spray and lime are considerably lower cost than the products previously used. A third robot was installed in 2021 to allow the family to expand cow numbers from 110 to 160 head, with additional cubicles built in the old parlour building.
This also means that the business can support an additional member of staff to help run the dairy unit. One full-time and one part-time employee currently work at dairy unit. Robert says he would do things differently if he could go back to 2016. “We went into it a little naively and now would probably try and change things more gradually, and make sure we had more labour available. “At the time, it was just me and my dad. During changeover you need an extra person above what you think you need for the first two or three months.”