Is robotic milking really the smart option?

One future vision of New Zealand dairy farming is farmer-less milking, where cows move quietly and efficiently through robotic milking machines. DairyNZ scientist Brian Dela Rue takes a closer look.

De Laval's automatic milking rotary (AMR) on a farm in Tasmania.

De Laval's automatic milking rotary (AMR) on a farm in Tasmania.

Richie McCaw's recent TV ads remind us that our dairy farmers are a hardy bunch, up at 4.31am or thereabouts, seven days a week in all weather, cupping cows to convert pasture into high-quality milk that produces money and jobs for the country.

Hardy as they are, there are plenty of farmers who feel that they've done more than their fair share of early morning starts and late finishes. Some want more family-friendly hours and others want more time to make their businesses more profitable and sustainable.

Maybe, in an idle moment, these guys aren't so much contemplating a world with driverless cars but farmer-less dairies. Robots quietly cupping contented cows in the early hours, without a yawn or a swear word, collecting that liquid gold while farmers are recharging their batteries overnight.

A third of New Zealand's  farms with automatic milking systems (AMS) milk less than 200 cows.
Andrea Fox

A third of New Zealand's farms with automatic milking systems (AMS) milk less than 200 cows.

This may sound like a futuristic vision, but robotic milking, or automatic milking systems (AMS) as we call them, has been around for 25 years and is now a mainstream technology in the United Kingdom and Europe. Driven largely by a lack of skilled labour and high labour costs, AMS now accounts for more than half of new installations in the UK.

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So how much tweaking is required to make a European-designed AMS fit well with a typical New Zealand farm system given that, generally, these overseas farm systems are different, their herds are smaller and their milk cheques larger. To answer that, we've been researching AMS use and implications in New Zealand since the early 2000s.

I'm part of a DairyNZ team studying precision dairy and what it might mean for our industry. Much of the current work is funded by the Transforming the Dairy Value Chain Primary Growth Partnership programme, a seven-year, $170 million innovation investment led by commercial partners, including DairyNZ and Fonterra, and partnered by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

For us it started back in 2001, with DairyNZ's 'Greenfield project' the world's first pasture-based AMS, initiated to examine whether robotic milking could work in grazing systems where supplements fed are low and pasture utilisation is critical to profitability.

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Our project's success led to the first commercial AMS farm here in 2008 and currently there are about 20 farms milking nearly 7000 cows through either Lely or DeLaval single-bail AMS units.

Twenty farms with farmers who seem pretty content with their investment decision. But that represents only 0.2 per cent of our dairy farms, which is surprising when you consider the compelling reasons for change: milking-related tasks account for nearly 50 per cent of hours worked - they set the length of the working day - and many farmers hold the view that finding skilled and motivated workers is becoming increasingly difficult.

Clearly AMS doesn't tick enough boxes for our farmers to attract more than just the motivated early adopters.  Those boxes are similar for any technology investment and include farmer goals; the ability of the technology to perform as required; the fit with the current infrastructure, on-farm skills and attitudes; the comparative advantage over non-technology options; and, of course, the economics.

There are two major limitations to more widespread adoption of current AMS in New Zealand that we can see.

The first is that state-of-the-art AMS isn't cheap. As an example, a single bail AMS unit, costing up to $250,000, will milk about 70 cows around twice a day over 24 hours. That means that a herd of 340 cows (North Island average) would require five AMS units (about $1 million) and a herd of 620 cows (South Island average) around nine AMS units ($2 million).

The second is that AMS using single-bail units, where cows voluntarily move from paddock to dairy is limited to smaller herds in grazing systems. With larger herds comes longer walking distances which tends to reduce milking frequency and result in lower milk production.

It's not surprising then that around a third of our AMS farms milk less than 200 cows and half milk between 200 and 400 cows.  In contrast, until recently we had the world's largest AMS farm in South Canterbury milking around 1500 cows through 48 AMS units in a housed system.

Other considerations and potential barriers to employing AMS include modifications required to the farm layout, gate systems and yard design for voluntary cow trafficking; adaption of farm management practices and possible requirement for a wider skill set; less manual work but more computer time; the inability to trial this technology before fully committing; and the existence of a viable alternative in once-a-day milking to reduce hours of work without large capital investment or system change.

A high-throughput AMS would be a better fit for our larger pasture-based farms, allowing conventional batch milking of herds without the need to change the farm layout or management. The holy grail of AMS expressed by many farmers is a robotic arm fitted in an existing rotary just for cupping cows. This has been under development since 2008 by a New Zealand company, ScottMilktech. An early prototype proved that the concept is viable but a commercial product is yet to reach the market.

AMS developers haven't been idle either. DeLaval now has a 24-bail automatic milking rotary (AMR) with 2-5 robotic arms, achieving a throughput reported at 50-90 cows per hour. GEA Farm Technologies has a robotic rotary (Dairy Pro Q) with up to 80 bails and a robotic arm at every bail with throughput reported to be 120-400 cows milked per hour. These new systems will tick more of the boxes for pasture-based farming but still come with a hefty price tag.

So in short, unless more farmers have a desperate need to replace manual milking or a burning desire to be at the pointy end of innovation, and are prepared to trade off greater capital investment for a better 'workstyle', the growth of AMS in New Zealand will continue to be gradual.

That new working lifestyle offered by AMS would allow farmers more time to focus on activities that will potentially make them more profitable, sustainable, and healthier - a future worth striving for.

So Richie, you can expect to see lights on at 4:31am around the country for a lot longer yet, but hopefully cost-effective farmer-less dairies are a mainstream option in the not-too-distant future.

Robotic milking – does it compute?

A few things to consider if you're thinking about how an automated milking system might work on your farm:

·         Size does matter: In grazing systems, current AMS is best suited to smaller farms but typically viable for herds under 500 cows, with less than 2km walking distances, and flat to rolling land.

·         Adapt to adopt: Are you willing to change working practises to cope with the different demands of robotic milking and other automated technologies?

·         Grass-roots knowhow:  How's your pasture management? Any deficiencies will be exaggerated in an AMS environment.

·         At your service: Are you OK being on call 24 hours a day for routine problems and is there a service provider within two hours of your farm for more technical issues?

·         Accounting for change: Is the business strong enough to support the significant investment associated with AMS milking?

·         Future is higher throughput: Ideally, AMS will milk cows at a similar rate to people so farmers can continue with conventional batch milking. Progress is being made on this.

·         Want to know more? https://www.dairynz.co.nz/milking/new-dairies-and-technology/robotic-milking/

 

 - Stuff

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