Robotic milking technology gains adherents
Pioneering dairy farmers are taking up robotic milking, with more investment to follow, as automation increases around the world.
Since the first automatic milking system was installed by DairyNZ in 2001, and then commercially on farms in Winton and Mayfield seven years later, the technology has extended to 3000 cows on 10 farms.
Most of these are located in Canterbury and Southland and carry out the milking of cows without human intervention, but they vary widely in their farm systems and sizes.
Automated milking was in the "classic adoption phase" and an exciting option, said DairyNZ senior scientist Dr Jenny Jago.
There was a move internationally for more automation and it seemed logical New Zealand would follow.
"In the long term, we are definitely heading for an automatic situation on many farms in New Zealand.
"What it will look like is difficult to know. It depends on their scale, on their goals and the type and setup of the farm."
The key to more automatic milking systems was the economic proposition and there had to be value for farmers to take up the technology, she said.
The systems cost more to build and have higher operating costs for servicing, power and water use.
Robotic technology has been attractive to farmers who find labour hard to find, want to stay on the farm without milking or want to provide a smoother progression of passing the farm on to their children or the next owners. Some owners have an interest in technology and want to challenge older farming methods.
DairyNZ scientists have found there is conflicting evidence on whether the systems save labour.
Jago said there was little consistency in the types of farms where the technology had been introduced and they ranged from big to small operations, intensively run and less intensively operated.
The common thread was a focus on labour, she said.
"They tend to have a focus on the cow and see this approach as offering more to the cow, and taking pressure off the cow and an individual approach to cows. Although we don't have enough data to say that labour is reduced, we get varying reports and cannot be certain. But there is no doubt the work changes."
Farmers and their workers are no longer bound to placing cups on udders twice a day and spend more time on less manual jobs such as setting up, monitoring and cleaning the technology.
For some farms there might be time savings, but introducing the technology to staff and cows can be time-consuming initially. Some farmers use the technology to milk less than twice daily, if they want to manage more cows or keep cows in better condition.
Robotic alternatives are being supplied by Lely and DeLaval, while Scott Technology is retrofitting a robotic arm on rotary milk sheds.
Sensors often attached to the systems monitor the cows' health and milk quality and manage the cows' movements remotely.
Of the 10 farms with robotics, three have barns with cows housed year round in two of them and during winter in the other. The rest are based around traditional pasture feeding.
Farms unsuitable for the technology include those with complex geography or divided by roads without an underpass, Jago said.
Taranaki Daily News