Robots help to transform the future at Northumberland dairy farm

Robots now do the work of humans at a dairy farm near Slaley, where the Northumbrian Pedigree Milk business is facing the future with confidence

From left, Paul and Richard Baynes, with parents Shirley and David, in the cubicle shed at Marley Cote Walls
From left, Paul and Richard Baynes, with parents Shirley and David, in the cubicle shed at Marley Cote Walls

The Baynes family have been farming at Marley Cote Walls near Slaley since the 1800s, but the business has undergone a technological transformation in the past few years, with robots now doing the work of humans.

It’s a far cry from a man sitting on a milking stool but Richard Baynes, who manages the dairy herd, is absolutely convinced of its benefits. The system has made a huge difference to his life and that of his brother Paul, who runs the dairy parlour, as well as their father David.

Richard said: “We were milking in a parlour and, to be fair, Paul and I weren’t that convinced about robots but Dad had seen them working in Sweden and Norway and he was quite convinced.”

Now their cows take themselves to be milked twice a day, producing Northumbrian Pedigree Milk – slogan From Moo to You – which can be found in small village shops and outlets from the Derwent Valley to Alnwick, stocked alongside mass-produced milk but tasting very different, with a creamier, sweeter taste, according to Paul. David said “We’re the only farm between Berwick and Darlington putting our own milk in bottles so if people want genuine local milk straight from the farm, there’s only us in quite a big area.”

Eighty Shorthorns and 50-60 Ayrshires produce about 20,000 litres of milk a week at Marley Cote Walls.

Richard said: “The dairy herd became pedigree in 1938, when the Dairy Shorthorns were first registered. Twenty years ago we opened another farm and needed cows in a hurry. Paul and I had milked Holsteins on our years out from college and their management just didn’t appeal. The cows that suited this farm were red and white so we bought Ayrshires.

“The robots can really just manage 65-70 cows per robot so we’re stuck at 130-140. We try to milk 130 all the time but there’s often 160 in the herd because there’s always 30 or so dry. That suits our plans because we’re not interested in milking 200, 300, 400 cows, what we wanted to do was milk the very best cows we can, get them all classified as good as you can get, then sell the surplus.

Marley Cote Walls farm at Slaley
Marley Cote Walls farm at Slaley
 

“If you’re selling really good cattle, people come back. Paul’s aiming for the very best quality milk he can do and we want the very best cattle. We sold a couple to Ireland in March and they were just awarded champion and reserve champion in their respective breeds at the Ulster Winter Fair.

“In the past eight years, cattle either owned or bred here have won every major show in England, Ireland Scotland and Wales, because we always sell some of our best.

“We’ve been bottling milk for seven years and the robots have been in for four years. We started bottling our own milk because we weren’t happy with the milk price. We didn’t want to put another parlour in, it’s always hard to find good staff. We’ve got Lewie, (Lewis Short) but we didn’t want to be relying on Dad, we wanted to build a system that, at a push, we could both manage.”

The robots – the Astronaut model from Dutch firm Lely – have led to a lifestyle change for Richard. No longer tied to a parlour pit at three hours at each end of the day, he can spend time with wife Helen and their two young sons.

“We have flexibility; there’s still work to be done but you don’t have to get up at 5am, you can do it when it fits in with your day.”

David added: “The management is the same as it used to be, it’s just the facilities that are so much better – for the men and the cows.”

Before using the robots, Richard had heard the horror stories from other farmers: “You don’t hear how easy they are to work. In four years there hasn’t been one cow that hasn’t been able to be to milked, even old 11th-calvers, deeper-uddered cows that you think it would struggle. You hear terrible stories about how hard the cows are to train – well, our cows were trained in about four days, it was no problem at all.”

Each cow wears a collar and there’s a tag reader in the roof of the robot box to identify her, with all information stored on the office computer. The cows are fed in the robot and it knows how much cake she’s allowed to be given. It takes her weight, her rumination, how her stomach is working, the milk temperature.

When she’s in the box, the robot cleans each teat twice – with a brush before milking and a disinfectant spray afterwards – then attaches the cups. The lasers remember where the teats were at the last milking and adjusts where the cups are placed.

As she’s milking, the milk passes through a box which looks at its colour and conductivity, checking for abnormalities and discarding anything unsuitable. The good milk is pumped through an underground filter to the processing tank in the dairy which holds 60,000 litres.

For the first four days after calving, colostrum is identified and separated in specific buckets then fed back to the calf from its mother, after which it goes on to powdered milk. Marley Cote Walls keeps all its calves and after weaning both bull and heifer calves go to the family’s other farm, Woodnook Hill, next to Slaley Hall golf course, to be finished off on home-grown barley before being sold at Carlisle.

Marley Cote Walls farm at Slaley, Northumberland
Marley Cote Walls farm at Slaley, Northumberland
 

Richard said: “The cows are coming in 2.8 times a day on average. The fresh cows come through five times a day, giving 10 or 12 litres at a time, so on average the cows are giving about 24 litres a day overall, but the high-yielders are giving up to 50 and because they’re going through so often, they’re never under any stress which is far better for their health and the longevity of the cow because they’re never overly full.

“Since we’ve been in the cubicle shed with the robots, it’s put 2,000 litres on the herd average and that’s the combination of the extra milkings, the cow comfort and the quality of life that the cows have. We try to graze between April to October/November, the cows all have the option of going out.

“They go through a gate that reads their collars and if they’re due for milking, it diverts them back in the shed. They’re basically free-range, the cow chooses when she wants to do everything – to go out to grass, to be milked, when she wants to eat.

“We paid a lot of money for the robots but it’s like paying a man; they’re doing the job of a cowman when you can’t get a cowman, especially in the North of England because there are no dairy herds left here.”

In the adjacent dairy parlour, Paul and his five-strong team produce an average 10,000 litres of milk a week, about half of the weekly production from the cows. The other half goes to the First Milk co-operative.

Paul said: “We sell 3-400 litres of cream a week. It’s a balancing act, we don’t want too many cream customers because you end up with a lot of skim wastage. Both Richard and I have young families and although I wouldn’t push my kids into farming, we were very lucky in terms of mam (Shirley, in charge of admin and finance) and dad putting this business together. You can’t have a business standing still so I couldn’t say we would never do yoghurt or anything else.

“When we made the move into bottling, the raw milk price was at an all-time low, we had three families to support and it was a case of me going finding work off the farm or having to diversify. We had friends at Newark bottling milk already so drew on their experiences, I did a course at Reaseheath College in Cheshire, we did market research, found Defra funding – who at the time were eager for farmers to do anything except produce food – and we got moving.”

“We started on quite a small scale and it’s been a gradual process of picking up customers and as we’ve grown, we’ve got larger equipment into the parlour to make filling and packaging easier.

“After four years of hard work with the family flogging themselves, we had the confidence of employing people which took the pressure off a little bit. We were never going to compete against the big boys, we wanted to stay individual so we marketed ourselves from that angle. A lot of dairies start up on farm and they scale up. I don’t think that’s ever been in our heads. We run the dairy to support the cows and the cows support the dairy, it’s a symbiotic relationship, we survive together.”

Richard added: “I suspect that if we weren’t bottling milk, we wouldn’t be milking cows.”

The family hosts regular tours of their Northumbrian Pedigree Milk operation. For further details, see www.northumbrianpedigree.com

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