There’s a large flat screen TV in Alvin Reid’s milking shed that displays scenes that once would have been only imagined in science fiction. This is dairy farming as you’ve never seen it before.
The TV in Reid’s shed shows cows dawdling out of their paddock, along the lane and up to the first of several drafting gates that will lead them to robotic milking machines.
Electronic radio frequency ear tags open the gates and each cow eventually arrives at one of six milking machines where it is fed meal as the machine washes its teats, attaches cups and monitors the milk flow and quality.
Everything appears very serene and relaxed as the animals do what they want in their own time. The really surprising thing is that most of the time there are no people involved. These cows - with the assistance of some sophisticated technology, are virtually milking themselves.
Alvin and his wife Judith have been dairy farming in South Canterbury since 1981. The family now owns four farms and three others are owned in partnership, running a total of over 4000 cows.
Reid has a love of computers and is widely recognised as a forward-thinking farmer. He says automation on the new farm is the most interesting thing he has done in dairying. “There’s enough exciting things here with technology to keep me going for the next 10 years,” he says.
Besides robotic milking he hopes eventually to automate other parts of the farm system, perhaps even fences.
This new farm, near Pleasant Point, was converted from a run-off block in 2013. Milking started on November 9 and Alvin says it took the cows about six weeks to get used to it.
He put in a big effort during that time to help cows learn the system, even sleeping at the milking shed for much of the time.
Once cows got the hang of it, however, the system has looked after itself and human input has been minimal.
This season 400 cows were milked, but he is hoping for closer to 500 next season.
HOW ROBOTIC MILKING WORKS
The milking shed operates 24/7 with three 45-minute breaks a day for washing. Cow behaviour is still being monitored to predict when the shed is the most quiet for the wash ups.
Cows can be blocked from the system if they try to come in too often, but on average they are choosing to be milked twice a day. Many choose to be milked during the night.
Reid says after 6pm or 7pm no one is on site, but he can monitor it remotely. “I’m very rarely called back at night now.”
THE COSTS - AND BENEFITS
Reid says the robotic milking shed probably cost $350,000 to $400,000 above the costs for a normal 50-bale rotary shed (which would be necessary for that size farm).
He says he would have no hesitation in putting it into other developments, however some of the home farms have relatively new rotary milking sheds, so they are committed to that for the next 20 years.
Reid believes the farm will be as profitable as other high performing farms. While more is spent on technology, robotic milking has the potential to save one full time labour unit on the farm.
“But that’s only part of it, I think a big part of the profitability equation will come from cow longevity. We’ve had only two lame feet all season and very low levels of mastitis. Young stock is one of the big costs in dairying now.”
MAKING IT WORK
Any abnormality in the milk leads to a text message being sent to staff and the cow being held until it is examined manually.
“We are only having to check six or seven cows a day instead of the whole herd,” Reid says.
“It’s totally different cow management. What we thought we knew about cow management we can now forget.”
Farm manager Rhys Grant says the system has made his life easier. “Instead of having the hours between milking to do your jobs you’ve got all day to do it because you’re not spending four hours in the shed.”
Reid says dairy farmers considering robotic milking should do their homework and that there’s a range of help available.
“DairyNZ have been really helpful. They run an automated milking discussion group. That was very very useful, and we had superb technical advice from DeLaval [the makers of the robotic equipment].”
Reid says he wouldn‘t develop any new property using conventional milking methods now.
“It’s a completely different way of running a farm.”