Robots do the milking
John Fisher has become the first Waikato dairy farmer to have a robotic milking system commercially installed on his farm.
Fisher and his wife Margaret spent more than $1 million on Professional Farm Services, Cambridge, installing the DeLaval Voluntary Milking System (VMS) which has gone into full operation on their Parallel Rd farm, between Ohaupo and Cambridge, this season after a few months of bedding in.
The Waikato's four robotic milking machines followed years of research on DairyNZ's (formerly Dexcel's) Ruakura research farm, in Hamilton. The research proved the machines of which about 6000 such units are in use, mainly in European barns where the cows don't see the light of day could be successfully adapted for New Zealand's pastoral farming system where cows spend little time in doors.
The Fisher installation followed the establishment of a much smaller two-robot installation on a smaller farm at Karaka, in South Auckland, in November.
Fisher began researching a system that would suit his farm about five years ago.
"I always thought it was going to be the future, but didn't think it would be in my farming lifetime," he said.
"I went to Australia and saw the first installation about five years ago, saw one in Japan and a DeLaval installation in Australia about 12 months ago.
"It's been a case of waiting for the right opportunity."
The rural economy, buoyed by the payout forecast of a record $8-$8.10/kg of milksolids, is still so volatile it's hard for Fisher to say how quickly the robotic system will pay for itself but it eventually will through savings in labour and animal health bills. Cows that milk when they feel like it are relaxed, rather than stressed at having to be milked at certain times of the day.
Fisher expects that change, alone, will deliver efficiencies when it comes to replacement cows.
"It's 20 per cent (per year at the moment) and I hope to get it down to 15 per cent that's going to be a huge saving or it might even come back to 10 per cent," he said.
"I think we are reasonably safe around the $6-$8 per kg of milksolids," Fisher said. "If dairy commodities come back the dollar will come back as well. We are all pretty nervous at the moment."
Neither could Fisher reliably say how the Voluntary Milking System would affect milk production which, at 320 cows, normally sits at about 115,000 kg. "I have not seen any hard data," he said.
However, he hoped it could improve by another 13,000kg a year or, at $8/kg, another $104,000.
The robotic system has required Fisher, and farm manager Gareth Purdie, to rethink farm operations because cows are milked by one of the four robots when they feel like it.
For the system to be effective, the cows must not have an oversupply of grass, or rrsupplementaryrr feed, because they would gorge in such paddocks and not move around the farm for their next turn at the hand, er cups, of the robot.
The cows, used to being milked in the traditional herringbone style milking shed alongside the new robotic installation, had had to be trained to follow their noses and tummies to the new milking yard.
"Ahead of us switching on the Voluntary Milking System we took the cows through prior to milking in the herringbone shed and after milking," Purdie said. "We did a dummy run, had them walk through the machines to get them used to it."
The robots had to be calibrated to the position of each teat on each udder of the 275-strong herd, which Fisher hopes to increase to 320 cows this season, with the cups manually placed by Fisher and Purdie the first time around to ensure everything was in the right place.
On her next visit, the cow is recognised by the robot and the laser guided robotic arm moves into place to milk.
Ordinarily the cows get access to the machines via a drafting gate which, through a clever bit of electrical jiggery pokery, identifies each cow and sets the milking machine she wanders to with her own specific settings.
She will not be granted access to the robots if she has mastitis, which can lead to blood from the infected teat or medication from the treatment getting into the milk.
"If the milk does not reach a certain grade, if there is blood in the milk, then it will be directed to another tank," DeLaval automated milking specialist David Reay said.
The Voluntary Milking System can be programmed to draft a cow who doesn't milk for the normal eight minutes straight back to the robot for another milking session and can also be used for other tasks such as drafting for Artificial Breeding (AB).
"It depends on the individual cow's permissions," DeLaval district sales manager Terry Storer said.
Each cow has a digital profile which, like a user account on a personal computer, defines what she is and isn't allowed to do. Her profile will say how often she will be allowed to be milked, for example, with some cows allowed as little as six hours between milkings while others are only allowed one milking every 14 hours.
"She can have milking permission after six hours and come in four times a day."
The average frequency, however, works out at 2.1 milkings per 24 hours.
The DeLaval software which runs the system can be accessed via weather-proof touchscreens from each robot, on a personal computer in an adjoining office, or from any other personal computer over the internet meaning Fisher and Purdie can check on the herd's progress from any where at any time.
It delivers data on yield per each quarter of the udder, compared to forecast, as well as recording the rate of the milk flow.
"After she did not reach, say 60 per cent of her potential, she could come back into here," Storer said.
Purdie, who used to rise at 5am for a 5.30am milking, said the Voluntary Milking System had freed him up to concentrate on other farm jobs more focused on raising productivity.
"We used to be up at 5am, cups on at 5.30am and be milking until 8.30am. You'd spend your day doing other jobs and start milking again at 3pm, finishing at 6pm. We have a lot more free time," Purdie said.
"We can get out of bed when we damn well like and come down and make sure everything is working. We don't need relief milkers anymore, it's just a one-man job."
Some might think the system would make the farmer lazy, but not Raey. "It does not stop you being a farmer. You still have to do the other jobs around cow health, artificial breeding, You still need to be keeping up with that."
Purdie said it gave him more time for pasture management.
"There's so many options (and variables) here," Fisher said. "Our feeding system might not be recognisable in a couple of years."
DeLaval, which has offices in Sandwich Rd, Hamilton, will show off the Automatic Milking System, as well as a segment of a rotary version, at Fieldays.
It will exhibit on sites D6 and D8.