Dairy farming into the future

Robotic milking
was primarily developed for small European-based herds, and the idea was that it would allow farmers
in those types of systems to allow cows to have
a higher milking frequency without negatively impacting
on the farmer’s lifestyle. If you imagine trying to fit
three milkings into a day, there’s going to be
at least one of those milkings happening at
extremely unsociable hours. The cows in those systems
generally are not limited or the production
is not limited by the nutrition or the genetics of those cows, but more by how often the milk
is removed from the gland. So the increase in milking frequency allows those cows
to produce more milk. In Australia,
that’s not so much the case, except for some of our
higher-producing systems. The key reason for farmers adopting
the technology in Australia is more from a labour and lifestyle
point of view. In comparison to other
farming systems around the world, labour in Australia
is very expensive, and, in fact, in many rural areas, it’s very hard to source
and to retain labour. One of the aspects of robotic milking
that’s particularly attractive is that, even if labour
is not an issue, the process of milk harvesting
is very time-consuming, and if we can automate that process
or the majority of it, it frees farmers up
to focus on other aspects that might improve the productivity
of his farming operation. In particular, that might
include pasture production, it might include the
nutritional management of the herd, also things like
the health of the herd, the reproductive performance
of the herd, all aspects that often
can be compromised a wee bit, because the farmer simply
just doesn’t have time to do them better
than what he already does. Globally, there are in excess
of 14,000 farms operating with robotic milking. In Australia, currently,
there’s 36 farms operating, but that’s really starting
to increase now. Our first farm
commissioned back in 2001, and it wasn’t really until about 2008 that we started to see
a little bit more uptake. The concept behind the robotic rotary was really as a high-throughput
robotic milking system. Previous to that, the commercial
robots that were available were what we call single-box
or multi-box robots. And the idea with the robotic rotary was that it could milk
many more cows per hour which would better suit our larger
farming operations in Australia and make the capital outlay
more competitive with conventional milking systems. Some of the key aspects
of robotic milking that are different
to conventional milking, firstly, that it’s
a voluntary milking system, so meaning that the cows
bring themselves for milking, they’re milked by the robots, and then they take themselves
back to the pasture without human encouragement. Also, it’s what we call
distributed milking, so it happens 24 hours a day as opposed to a conventional system
where, typically, cows would be milked in the morning
and then again in the afternoon. The other thing that’s really
particular to robotic milking is that it is what we call
incentive-based. So if we give the cows everything
that they need out in the paddocks, so plenty of food and water and shade
and shelter and herd mates and ask her to bring herself home
for milking when she wants to, typically, she will not come. So when we talk about
an incentive-based system, food is the key incentive
that works for every cow every day, and we allocate the food, the daily food requirements of the
herd, across a number of paddocks. And typically,
it would be three paddocks. When they deplete
one of those paddocks, they would move out of that paddock
and head towards the dairy in search of another paddock. And when they get to the dairy,
she’ll go through a drafting gate, which either sends her into the dairy
for milking before she can gain access
to that paddock or she’ll be released directly to the
paddock if she’s already been milked. So as the cow comes into the dairy,
she’s wearing a transponder, which is really important, and transponders can be either
around the cow’s neck on a collar, it could be
a specific type of ear tag. There’s a number of types of systems,
but, essentially, what that is it’s an electronic identification
of the cow. So the system knows who the cow is
and can make decisions based on that. And those decisions
will influence things like where she’s drafted when she progresses through
any of the drafting gates. It will also influence
the decisions made for milking and also the data
that’s captured and recorded against that cow’s identification and
association with that milking event. The cow steps onto the platform and is progressed around the platform
in a step-wise fashion, or a stop/start fashion, and that’s to allow the robots to deal with the cow that’s
in front of them and to back out, and then the system
rotates one more step. The cow will progress
past four robots at the beginning
of the milking session. The first of those four robots
will clean the back teats. So it’s using a cleaning cup circulating warm water and air
around the teat and stimulating the teat which
encourages the cow to have a let-down and also removing the first five mils
of milk from that teat, which is discarded because that’s the highest
bacteria count milk from the cow. The cow then progresses
to the next robot, which cleans the front two teats. The next robot that the cow comes to is the start
of the milk harvesting process. So, that robot will collect
two milking cups, take those in underneath the cow,
and attach those to the rear teats. The last robot that the cow comes to is primarily focused on putting the
milking cups on the front two teats. If the previous robot didn’t get
both back cups on, the last robot will make up for that and put one of those cups on before progressing
and putting the front cups on. Essentially, each robot
is dealing with half a cow. That means that each stop/start or
step in the progression is quicker than if it was dealing with
a whole cow. The cow progresses
around the platform, and the milking takes place. As each quarter is milked out, that cup is automatically retracted
or removed from the teat. What this means is that
we don’t under-milk or over-milk any individual quarters, so the cow will be progressing
around the platform, and she will go from having
four cups on, down to three cups on until all of the cups are off
and the milking is completed. Robots operate with what we call
a quarter-based milking system. What that means is that the milk
from each quarter is kept separate and passed through
a series of sensors. Those sensors collect a host of data that is reported back to the farmer through the software management
aspect of the system. The information collected
during the milking is also available to the operator if they happen to be in the platform
or in the milk harvesting unit. Because primarily people
are not present for the milking, it is important that the system
is monitored remotely. What this means is that, if there’s any issues or anything
that requires human attention, the system will auto-dial
or auto-ring whoever’s on call. So that, all throughout the day
and night, if there are any issues, the people are informed and can
respond in an appropriate way. Sometimes, that response
might involve the farmer logging in from home
and checking the system and having a look at
who’s on the platform, how milking is progressing
for individual cows, or the farmer might need to attend
the farm and intervene in some way. When milking is completed and the cow has progressed
to the exit area of the platform, her teats are sanitised
with an iodine-based spray to reduce the risk of any infection. As the cow exits the platform,
the platform is rotating, and there’s a water spray and
a scraper that’s cleaning the deck, cleaning away manure so that
the next cows that are coming on are coming on
to a relatively clean deck. At the same time, the milking cups
that were taken off that cow are flushed with cold water to reduce the risk
of any cross-contamination of mastitis between cows, but also just to remove any manure that might’ve come onto those cups
at the end of the milking process. The feed stations that the cows
progress into after milking act as a bit of reward for the cow. More or less to say,
“Thanks for coming. “Come again tomorrow.” But, on top of that, it’s an important part of the
feeding system for the operation. So in a dairy farming system
or a pasture-based system, cows can’t get all of the energy
they’re required to produce the volume of milk
that their body is driven to produce on grass alone. Most farmers would be inclined
to offer the cows a energy-dense
grain-based concentrate, which boosts their energy and helps
to support that pasture-based diet. In this system, the grain-based
allocation is trickle-fed to the cow, so just small volumes of feed
are put out at a time. And the cow has to stay at the feeder
and be eating for it to continue to trickle-feed. The importance of that is that if another cow bullies her
out of her feeding station that there’s not a big volume
of feed left there. We can be much more confident that the feed that’s being allocated
to an individual is actually being consumed
by an individual. When the cow has finished feeding or finished her allocation
of concentrate, she would then make her way through
the remainder of the dairy, progressing through a number
of drafting gates which can draft her
to various areas of the farm. Which in particular
at different times of the day the cows will be sent
to a different paddock. It can also draft her
into a holding pen if the farmer wants her kept
for something special. You know, maybe she’s having
priority treatment at the moment or she’s being sent
to a different paddock so that she’s got
a different feed allocation. And from wherever the cow is sent,
she makes her way out to the pasture and stays there basically until
she’s depleted that feed allocation and decides to come back to the dairy
for another try. The reality is that, depending on how the farmer
adopts the robotic milking, it can have a significant influence on the economic viability
of the business, though. If he saves a lot of labour, that may increase the profitability
of his operation. There will also be some aspects
that become more expensive. For example, power consumption
or electricity consumption because the operation
is operating 24 hours a day. Also, things like the repairs
and maintenance of a technology like robotic milking are likely
to be significantly higher, just as it would be more expensive to service a Mercedes
compared to a Toyota. It’s a change in technology, and it is important
that it’s well maintained. Robotic milking doesn’t have
a direct environmental impact. Any indirect impact is likely to be because the farmer has shifted
their focus from milk harvesting to other aspects of the business which might improve
the efficiency of the operation. From a social aspect,
the impact of robotic milking is much more significant than
some other areas of the operation. Because milking becomes
a background operation, it’s conducted 24 hours a day, there are no milking session times that we would normally have
with conventional milking. So the whole concept of having
a morning and afternoon milking no longer exists
with robotic milking. From an animal welfare point of view, robotic milking is quite appealing in the respect that the cows
choose when to milk themselves, they choose when to make their way
around the farming system, they can do things at a pace
that they’re very comfortable with. There’s nothing to stop a cow
from standing in the laneway and chewing her cud for half an hour if that’s what she chooses to do
on her way to the dairy. It really is a system driven by
the cows and occurs at cow pace. There can even be opportunities
for the cows to avoid other individuals
in the herd or to go to the dairy or conduct
different activities during the day with a selected group of cows
that they choose to hang out with, if you like. From an animal welfare point of view,
another advantage of robotic milking is that the amount
of data and information that’s collected and provided
to the farmer creates the opportunity for
the farmer to better manage his herd and to focus on aspects
that might otherwise be compromised depending on the farming system. Some of the information
that comes from the sensors and the data collection can alert the farmer to
early indications of disease that otherwise would not be picked up
until the cow becomes clinically ill. By focusing on tasks that are likely to have
a bigger impact on productivity, the farmer can improve
the whole farm system performance, the efficiency of the operation, and, at the end of the day, improve
the sustainability of their business, thereby improving the sustainability
of the Australian dairy industry. Robotic milking will play its part in the viability
of the Australian dairy industry, ensuring that local farmers continue
to put the milk on your Weet-Bix and the cheese on your pizza.

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