Farmers more open to 'relaxed' robotic milking

Robotic milking ties in with dairying's efforts to reduce its environmental footprint and also stacks up commercially, Lely New Zealand managing director Peter Vis says.

He said the cost of a robotic system was not much different to that of a fully automated rotary shed.

"Your footprint in concrete is a lot smaller with robotics because you don't have a waiting yard, and therefore your environmental footprint is also a lot less.

"You have a lot less effluent. Cows are more relaxed, and the experience is when they are more relaxed, they produce less manure than when they are in the yard."

Vis said dairy farmers had a high interest in technology and were more open to using robotic milking than they were previously.

"We saw in the last few years people have been sitting on the fence and looking if the novelty is wearing off or if it's really suitable for New Zealand, and we have proven now we can milk successfully 600-cow herds with 100 per cent grazing to over 1000-cow herds - and also, very small herds below 100 cows can be milked successfully with milking robots."

Robotic milking arrived in New Zealand in 2008, initially in Canterbury, followed soon afterwards by Southland. Operations in the North Island followed.

The machines have been on the market in the Netherlands for 21 years and have spread worldwide, with Lely building a new factory in the United States and due to build another in the Netherlands.

Vis said winter barns were being installed alongside robotic systems.

Nobody liked to see a cow knee-deep in mud during winter, and shelter was beneficial for cow comfort, he said.

"A cow produces milk at an optimum temperature of 14 degrees [C], and you know the New Zealand climate - there are quite a few days where it is hotter than that."

Cows can milk themselves at any stage over 24 hours.

In the early stages of lactation, they can come up to the plant seven or eight times and be milked four times daily. By the end of lactation, that tapers off to once-a-day milking.

Molasses or "lead feed" attracts the cows to the milking stations, and an added incentive is access to a fresh break of grass after milking is completed.

Vis said it was not just a milking machine but a farming system. Computers provided individual data for each cow, such as udder health, and allowed farmers to manage their individual needs and fine-tune their feed conversion to milk to optimise the return on their investment.

"Quite often you hear [that] the labour factor is the important factor, but it's the whole range.

"[Robotics attract] people that love dairy farming but have a bad back and want to continue, and a shortage or consistency of labour is a failing.

On some farms and some remote areas, it's hard to get good labour.

"On Saturday mornings it can also be hard to get good labour, or some people want a more modern lifestyle, where a robot can aid them and not tie them to a shed for two milkings a day."

The Press