Robotic dairy farming: a better life for man and cow
A farmer runs his dairy operation several hundred kilometres away with the aid of technology, writes Pat Deavoll.
It's the dead of night and Alvin Reid sits in his office, lit up by a flat screen television. A cow wanders across the screen, pauses to sniff the air, before sauntering into a milking bail. Reid is in Wanaka and the cow is on his Riverholme Farm at Pleasant Point, 270 kilometres away.
Reid is doing his "shift" on the 125-hectare robotic dairy farm. He shares the work with two other staff and chooses to do this via the internet from his new Central Otago home. Technology, which Reid revels in, has allowed him to work remotely.
"I have always been interested in technology," he says. "I've had a fascination with electronics since the 1980s when I bought my first computer."
Riverholme Farm was converted from a run-off block and opened as a robotic dairy farm in 2013. It is now in its fourth season of milking and third full calving.
It's been a steep learning curve to reach this stage, Reid says. Training the cow's to milk voluntarily has required time and patience. Never will a motorbike chase these cows up a lane, he adds.
"Changing our mindset from a conventional farming system to a voluntary milking system (VMS) was the hardest thing," Reid says.
"It's been a huge change of attitude; to be honest it's more about changing the farmer than the cow."
About six weeks passed before the cows got the hang of milking themselves. At the time Reid slept in the shed until the cows were settled. By day 66 every cow was voluntarily moving from the paddock and into the shed for milking by a robot.
Reid and wife Judith have been dairy farming since 1978 and began share milking before buying their first farm at Winchester. Today they own Riverholme Farm plus have shares in five others, three of which are operated by their children.
What makes the Riverholme Farm so special is that the 480 cows graze year round, not in dairy barns, but on open pasture. They walk up to three kilometres a day to get themselves to one of the six DeLaval robotic milkers and at peak lactation will milk more than twice a day.
"New Zealand's strength is in its pastoral farming. Our feeding system is no different than other farms - 80 per cent pasture," Reid says.
Feeding costs are kept extremely low with this system and robotic milking can be introduced without adding to pasture management or feeding costs.
Reid says the drop in labour costs and animal health costs are balanced out with the higher capital investment. However, he believes the potential in increased cow longevity, proactive farm management and labour retention makes the system worthwhile.
Robotic technology starts at the gate with each animal ear tagged. The tag sends a signal to the central computer that stores information on each cow's milk production flow. The computer's memory then guides the animal through a series of gates to milk or graze.
The DeLaval VMS robot comes with a "herd management system" (HMS). This collates a comprehensive record for each cow and allows Reid and his staff to follow each cow's milking performance and milk quality.
The herd management technology also keeps track of the cow's milk production and number of visits to the VMS. The optimal time for the next visit is automatically calculated, based on the time elapsed since the previous milking and the amount of milk expected.
"The HMS logs milk quality for each cow and sends alarms if threshold levels have been breached," Reid says. "It alerts the VMS which automatically diverts abnormal milk and alerts staff via mobile phone and computer."
Cow traffic at the milking machines is controlled by a smart selection gate. Reid says this helps to get more milkings per cow per day, more regular milking intervals and high feed intake. Traffic is greatest from midday until 7pm and tails off as the night goes on.
"Eventually I don't want people here," Reid says. "Most days between 7pm and 5am there is no staff here. The plan is to get exceptional reporting systems in place and if the farm is running the way it should I don't want to know about it. But if something is wrong I want to know about it straight away.
"When I get a text I bring up the robots on the screen. If the text is about teat cup grip then I bring up the robot and can see the teat cup hanging; from my computer, I can control the robot and fix it."
The robotic farm project has cost Reid about $2.5 million and a rotary milking shed would have cost less. But they will get that back, he says.
"The milking shed probably cost $350,000 - $400,000 above the cost of a conventional 50 bail rotary shed. But it uses only 2.5 labour units compared with a rotary's three labour units. A conventional farm of the same size would take 3.5 staff."
Animal health costs have dropped. Despite extensive walking, there has been a decrease in cow lameness and Reid expects cow longevity will improve to perhaps an extra lactation because of the new system. Cows have less mastitis and produce more milk with less staff.
"We have about 4.5 lactations per cow and we think we will be able to extend that to about 5.5 lactations, time will tell."
Well acquainted with the technology now, he does not believe the system is especially difficult to operate.
"You don't have to be a computer whiz," he says.
But he thinks its widespread adoption will take time.
"Will it become mainstream? Probably not. Will all farmers want to handle this sort of technology? Probably not.
"But our cows are back to being individuals, not a herd. Our cows run the farm now, not us."