WESTCOUNTRY FARMER: Helping to keep West's parlours in the game

There isn’t much that Phil and Rachel Squires don’t know about dairy farmers.

Since taking over what was a very small company in 1999, the couple have seen their business, South West Dairy Services, go from strength to strength, increasing the number of staff to 24 and a significant rise in turnover. “There were three of us in the company back then,” said Phil. “The boss of the company died and his wife wanted to get out of it so we ended up taking over. From that time we’ve grown an awful lot, with six or seven times the turnover we had in 1999.”

South West Dairy Services, based near Cullompton, has grown to offer a complete range of services to the industry, including planning and installation of new dairy systems, dairy hygiene solutions, service and spares, parlour testing to ISO standards and borehole and water solutions.

However, out of all the services on offer to customers, the MIone robotic milking system and the MullerUp automated feeding systems are undoubtedly the grandest. Installing the first milking and feeding systems in the UK and earning themselves the title of the main GEA Farm Technologies dealer in the South West, the couple have never been afraid to get ahead of the game and admit that they have always been open to innovation. Built with market-leading dairy technology, the systems are revolutionising the traditional parlour experience and as Phil and Rachel explain, giving dairy farmers their life back.

“We’re finding that most of our customers with robots are actually getting a life again, suddenly they have teatime with the family and that is the sort of thing that makes a difference,” said Phil. “Historically they were milking cows until eight o’clock and the children had come home from school and had their tea, whereas now they can do a day’s work, instead of having their day broken up with a gap in the middle and gain the social time.”

Phil added that as filling herdsmen and relief milker roles is becoming a harder sell for farmers, more and more are turning to the robot in order to cut out the hassle and concentrate on jobs which in a traditional system would be bottom of the to-do list. “I believe that when you look at jobs on farms, the biggest problem that farmers are finding is getting people to milk cows at six o’clock in the morning and eight o’clock at night. What the robot does is it compresses the day,” he said.

“It saves a certain amount of labour but not a great amount, it redistributes it into a sensible working day and it allows the farmer and people on the farm to concentrate more on the cows, more on the cow’s wellbeing and health, rather than just milking the cows, so you end up with better looking and healthier cows. By keeping the same amount of labour and looking after the cows better, the cows will look after you better.”

Rachel added that the decision to choose a robotic milking system was often driven by keeping the next generation on the farm, and drew on one particular example of a young family in Holsworthy who have recently had a robotic milking system installed. She said: “They know that if they stick to the traditional way of milking with the hours that the children aren’t going to want to stay home on the farm. By investing in the technology and looking forward, they’re changing the hours and lifestyle and hoping that it will keep the children on the farm and their interest. You’ve still got to work hard with the automated systems but they can start to see some kind of life and I think with them being a young family that was a big thing for them, either act now or we’re going to be five-years down the line and the children won’t want to come back to the farm.”

She added: “We’re losing a lot of very bright, business management orientated young people that are seeing this life of drudgery for ‘what do you get out of it in the end’. They’re all going off to other industries and I think people are beginning to wake up to the fact that those are exactly the sort of people we need in farming if there’s going to be a future.”

A selection of installation options are available to farmers for both the robotic milking and automated feeding systems, but as Phil explains, when installing robot milking boxes, the company would always suggest a guided access system. Using a driving passageway placed in front of the milking boxes, the cows are automatically selected according to their readiness for milking. Cows which the computer recognises as ready for milking are guided into the holding area of the milking robot, with those not ready for milking sent directly to the feeding area.

“A little bit more time and thought to set up in the first place saves you an hour a day of chasing cows around and saves you food, and makes the farm more efficient,” said Phil.

Rachel added: “It’s getting farmers to realise that if they embrace the technology it’s not removing them from their cows and becoming a non-tactile industry where there’s no animal husbandry. There’s still animal husbandry but it’s more efficient and you’re actually looking after your animals far better. It’s getting them to work with the technology rather than resisting it.”

At a time when the core element of the business, in this case the dairy farmers themselves, are receiving less and less for the milk they produce, it begs the question of how the connecting industries are going to be affected. However, whilst Phil and Rachel acknowledge that some dairy producers are understandably going to be cautious with their credit cards, many are looking at how to be more efficient and cost-effective in the long term.

Phil explained: “Particularly with the dairy industry and the milk prices, we are finding that the customers that are in it are looking at being more efficient and more cost effective, how can we do it cheaper? The ones with their heads screwed on are looking at it and saying ‘hang on we’ve actually got to invest money in technology to reduce our running costs’.

“It’s going to put some off investing but we’ve found over the years that a lot of people will look at it and even when the price is down, if they can invest money to be more efficient, they will.”

Rachel added: “We saw this a couple of years ago when the prices crashed and everyone was like ‘hang on tight, where are we going to be in a few years’, but actually what we found was that people were suddenly thinking that they needed to invest, get their business management plan in place and look at a ten-year plan rather than bumbling along the way they always have.”

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