There can't be many dairy farmers who don't dream of rolling over and going back to sleep on a cold, wet morning when the alarm sounds at 4am.
Judging by New Zealand's first live robotic milking display, at the biennial Southern Field Days, that dream is already well within the grasp of those at the forefront of dairy industry development. It may not be long before robots are as common in milking sheds as rotary platforms are today.
The technology to milk cows with robots has been around for 20 years and is well accepted internationally, according to Harmen Heesen, group chief executive of Technipharm, a leading supplier of farm automation and animal handling equipment.
Along with its partners Lely New Zealand and Cowhouse Construction, Technipharm set up the purpose-built robotic milking shed at Waimumu, which attracted thousands of visitors during the three days of the event.
Mr Heesen, a former Taranaki dairy farmer, said the companies would probably repeat the display at the National Fieldays at Mystery Creek later this year, possibly on a slightly larger scale.
The objective was to encourage farmers to think about the ease and efficiency of a different type of farming, using robots and the benefits of housing cows, he said.
"There's a huge change happening in the industry internationally. New Zealand is at the back end of that, but I'm sure we'll catch up very quickly."
More than 50 per cent of dairy platforms in the Netherlands had been converted to robotic milking, and the Czech Republic had 1000 robotic milking units, he said.
Lely's biggest area of growth is the United States, where it is building new factories to keep up with the demand for robotic milking systems during the past five years.
The biggest incentive for New Zealand dairy farmers to use robots is an opportunity to double production from the average of 360kg/MS per cow on a grass-based system to 700kg/MS, by housing cows under cover and milking them with robotic systems.
"It is a wake-up call for a lot of New Zealand farmers that the genetic capability of their animals is a lot greater than what we realised out of the pasture model," Mr Heesen said.
"Even Fonterra's own cows in China are doing double the average of New Zealand's production, and they are just average New Zealand cows. But they are better fed, better taken care of, and are not subjected to bad weather, and consequently they produce a lot better."
Lely New Zealand Ltd managing director Peter Vis said increased production came from changes to the whole management system, not just introducing new hardware such as robotic milking units.
He said the cows adapted to robotic milking very quickly, with little difference between training them to walk on to a rotary platform.
"The cows are very relaxed and literally milk themselves."
The robot milks each teat individually, and automatically switches off the suction when milk production drops below a certain threshold. Consequently, milking is a lot less stressful on cows, with no blind milking and less chance of mastitis.
Robotic milking requires a bit more training for farmers because it involves changing farm management systems to deal with the feeding, monitoring and welfare of cows.
The system can be fine-tuned so farmers can monitor performance and get optimum production from individual cows.
Highly productive cows are rewarded with an incentive of being fed more grain while they are being milked.
Researchers have found that the adrenalin levels of cows milked by robots are significantly lower than those of cows milked by conventional systems.
In terms of animal health, robots offer early warning and easy management systems that help a farm run more efficiently. For example, cows with mastitis are automatically drafted out of the herd.
And then there is the advantage of significant labour savings, freeing up staff to do other tasks on the farm.
"We struggle to get farm labour in the dairy industry because it is a pretty harsh environment compared to office work," Mr Vis said.
He said he believed robotic milking would become a mainstream technology here, as it had overseas.
"These robotic units built in the Netherlands are the best you can get," Mr Heesen said. "The robot monitors all performance data, cow temperatures, weights and hours ruminating."
"The information is easily accessible to farmers and advisers via broadband."
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