Hi-tech barn key to happy cows, say couple

ROBOTIC ROUTINE: Dairy farmers Glennis and David McConnell use four robots to milk their cows on their 70ha farm near Newstead in Waikato.
ROBOTIC ROUTINE: Dairy farmers Glennis and David McConnell use four robots to milk their cows on their 70ha farm near Newstead in Waikato.

David and Glennis McConnell want a happy, content herd of cows.

If their herd is happy they produce more milk and have healthier animals that require less work to farm.

They believe they have gone a long way to achieve this by constructing a cow barn on their 70ha farm near Newstead.

The 11.5 metre-high roof provides clean air, preventing any ammonia smells which leads to better cow health. It is 70 metres long and 36 metres wide and can house 300 cows.

The shed provides a place for cows to rest and stay cool in the heat of the summer, David McConnell said.

"Anything about 22 degrees is heat stress for a milking cow. That's why we have gone so high with the roof to get airflow into the barn."

If it was a 29-degree day outside it will be 21 degrees inside the shed, he said.

Within the shed, each cow is given its own cubicle in which to sit and is free to leave whenever they wish.

Having a good environment where the cows can lay down is key to keeping his herd happy, he says.

The surface of the cubicle is covered in a thick rubber and foam mat that is comfortable for the cow to sit on and it provides free space for the cow to rest in a good position.

If a cow is lame and cannot get up, the commode is removed to give the cow space to get up.

Ideally, the cow sits facing the wall so any manure falls over the edge of the cubicle. The lanes are then cleaned by a floodwash system twice a day and the mats can be cleaned using a rake.

The effluent from the shed is then sent to their storage system and is spread back out onto their maize crops.

He held a field day on his farm last week where he explained his farm system to 150 farmers.

The shed also has a automatic brush fitted with a sensor used to clean a cows head and back end which helps keep fly numbers down.

The McConnell's did their research before deciding on the type of barn they wanted. He spoke to dairy farmers in Southland who had operated barns for several years, most of who had low roofs and have had to install fans to achieve airflow.

The high roofs should prevent the need for these fans, he reckons.

The shed is also four metres wider than most sheds in Southland.

The cows could well be in their cubicles 24 hours a day apart from when they travel to the robots to be milked during the winter.

At other times of the year, the cows may well be out on the paddocks for 16 hours during the day.

It depended on the weather, he said.

The shed also has enough light at night to prevent cows from becoming disoriented if they leave to be milked.

The shed is equipped with a feed lane down the middle where maize and grass silage is fed out to the cows.

This lane is equipped with a robot that pushes the feed back into the corners of the lane because cows naturally push the feed away as they eat.

The cows are milked all year round using four Lely Astronaut robots and calving is split between autumn and spring, using AI.

The whole system, the shed and the effluent system, cost the McConnell's $1 million while the four astronaut milking robots cost another $1 million.

His reasons for switching to robotics were simple. He had enough of the stress involved in milking his herd twice a day.

The use of robotics makes running the farm less stressful. One and a half labour units can easily run 300 cows on the farm.

"I still enjoy farming but I was tired of milking cows twice a day and I know the cows can do more production than what we were getting out on them.

"It allows me to milk 60 more cows on this property and I have control of the weather with the shed."

It has resulted in a lift in production. This season the cows have milked 520kg milk solids per cow, well above the Waikato average of 330kg MS. Last season the cows milked 400kg MS.

He plans to lift his cow numbers from 250 this season to 300 and next season he is aiming for 600kg MS. Over the long term, he hoped to increase production to 700kg MS per cow.

Milking robots have been in New Zealand since 2008 and there were 16,000 worldwide over the last 22 years, Lely New Zealand managing director Peter Vis said. "It's a technology that is there to stay and is growing rapidly."

Everything in the robotic system was based on voluntary cow traffic and to make that happen there is a lot that has to be done.

"Cow welfare and farmer welfare are two things we rate very highly in our set-ups and to make that happen there is a lot that needs to be tuned into each other so the cows can move freely and you have as little work as possible running the farm."

"The cows have to be trained to get used to the robots and it usually takes them three to five days to become used to the robots."

The McConnells' herd consists mostly of friesian cows instead of crossbred cows because of their larger size and production capacity.

The robots are run off a software management programme that allows the farmer to know what is happening on the farm.

This is done via a special tag worn around their neck, which is recognised by the computer system when the cow enters the race to be milked.

This system measures a cow's production levels, heat activity, udder health, feeding systems and it can recognise medicated cows to separate their milk from the rest of the herd.

The robotic system has cows milking 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

To achieve this, it uses a grazing system that creates a self-milking herd for the farmer, allowing the cows to go to different blocks on the farm.

This system has the cows enter a drafting system at the milking shed that directs the cows to a fresh break of grass every eight hours. The system uses races from the milking shed that divides the farm four ways. Three of these races lead to paddocks while the fourth race goes to the barn.

"It's at their own leisure, there's free cow traffic and the cows come and go as they please."

When a cow from the herd comes to the shed it goes through a gate where the tag is read. If the cow is due to be milked then it enters the shed and is milked. If the cow is early, it exits the shed and walks back out to the paddock.

Waikato Times