Robotics meets the dairy cow

Havelock North is on the verge of receiving some very special new residents – 120 Holstein cows to be exact. These bovine residents will be the stars of a showcase model in ‘smart-farming’ practice.

Michael Whittaker, a Hawke’s Bay entrepreneur and successful businessman, sees his model as the future of dairy farming in New Zealand. A man who senses opportunity and looks beyond the current status quo, Whittaker says, “We need to look at different farming systems in order to prepare the industry for the future in the best way”.

Better known locally as the owner of the second largest mushroom business in New Zealand, Te Mata Mushrooms, Whittaker decided to better utilise his 20 hectare site, and open his doors to a potential catchment of 18,000 people. His journey led him to micro-dairies. He believes a micro-dairy, completely transparent to the public, will not only help bridge the gap between industry and public, but could become part of a fully sustainable enterprise comprised of both mushrooms and dairy.

Robotics meets the dairy cow

He’s not planning an ordinary dairy. His dairy will be a flagship in New Zealand, showcasing a robotics-based Automated Milking System (AMS) developed by the Netherlands-based Lely company, and housing the herd in a barn. Whittaker asserts, “Barning and robotics offer solutions to numerous industry problems such as effluent management, high land prices, lack of skilled labour and a limited suitable land resource.”

This may sound a little Star Trek for Havelock North, with images springing to mind of robots moving themselves around the herd with outstanding precision and speed. In fact, it is the other way around; the cows take themselves to the robot or the ‘cow box’. Whittaker is installing two Lely robotic cow boxes inside the barn. Literally, when the cow feels the need to be milked, day or night, she voluntarily enters into the cow box where a reward, in the form of feed, will be dispensed to her.

The robot identifies which cow is which from their electronic tag. From this the robot customises her feed to the level of production, extends its high-tech Lely Astronaut arm which cleans her teats, attaches the milking cups and begins the process. All the data gathered from the milking experience – such as body weight, milk quality and quantity – is collated and sent to a single computerised dashboard. This ensures the farmer receives a constant stream of information regarding all the individual cows.

Clever stuff! With 18,000 robotic milking systems throughout the world, Lely prides itself on being ‘cow centred’. Lely’s website notes: “Research has shown that a ‘walk in, walk out’ cow box design eliminates any unnecessary obstacles (apparently cows are not keen on having to make turns), it is a cow friendly design and allows the cow to be in constant contact with the rest of the herd. This interaction minimises undue stress”.

Using an AMS is a large technological step up in New Zealand dairy farming and will require some radical changes in thought and farming practice. This technology, already extensively used in Europe, measures physiological, behavioural and production indicators on individual animals. In effect each cow is treated singly and receives the unique attention it requires. Not only does this allow for early detection of illness, it will also increase both productivity and efficiency. In addition, the cows are able to exhibit more of their natural behaviours having the freedom to be milked as and when they need to be.

Expensive initial set-up costs and operational costs could be a restraint for many farmers interested in adopting this model. The system uses high inputs of both energy and water. However, the operational costs are claimed to be offset by increased milk productivity and general business efficiency.

Whittaker notes that the current New Zealand average of milk produced per cow per year is 3,800 litres. Using the AMS approach one can expect levels of more than 10,000 litres. In addition, animal health is greatly improved; one such example is a lower incidence of mastitis, thus reducing medical expenses and improving animal comfort. “The cows will have their feed brought to them; they will not need to exert energy in foraging and walking long distances, twice daily, to be milked. This saved animal energy is converted into milk production”.

Further, labour costs can be reduced, and labour that is required can be better utilised. Whittaker has seen that: “Barns housing a herd of 300 in Europe can be managed by one skilled person. This person is no longer required to put on and remove cups from teats but can spend more of their time observing animal behaviour.” Indeed getting used to this new technology may prove difficult at first. It appears the cows only take one week to ten days of training to understand how the system works; it can take the farmer up to a year!

This is not the first use of an AMS in New Zealand. Dairy farmers Janet and Bill Overgaauw from Southland adopted this technology, on a pasture-based system with wintering barns, eight seasons ago. They report both an increase in milk production from a higher milking frequency and an overall improvement in animal health. The system has allowed the Overgaauws greater flexibility in their working day, improved business manageability and has given them the opportunity to continually evolve their business.

Whittaker sees this model as being a potential solution to many of the issues facing farmers who live in Central Hawke’s Bay. Indeed, CHB could become the leaders in this farming practice. Arguably, the proposed Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme would be able to provide the year round water required for this system. Estimates vary from about 35% to 60% regarding how much dairying would result from the irrigation scheme, with opponents insisting the higher range will result due to the high cost of scheme-provided water.

Whittaker sees the barning system as a possible middle ground required to make this project more acceptable on both sides. “The pertinent issues that have been brought to the table are the downstream impacts on our environment through high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus resulting from the intensification and land use change that this project will bring.”

He argues that barning with correct management can minimise these harmful impacts. Barning will allow the surrounding land to be used more efficiently and effectively. Paddocks previously used for grazing can be used to grow crops which will feed the herd. Feed wastage will be reduced as the cows are being monitored individually in terms of feed requirement. The effluent produced by the herd, completely controlled within the barn, can be utilised and spread back onto the land to grow the crops. Not only does this minimise leaching and resultant downstream nutrient pollution, it decreases the use of chemical fertiliser inputs. Keeping the effluent on the land and out of the water saves the farmer both in environmental costs and financial costs.

Is this the ‘new face’ of dairy farming? Will the shift in farming practice bring new young farmers back into the industry? Whittaker passionately advocates that barning combined with robotics is the only way forward for the New Zealand dairy industry. “We need to stay ahead of the game and embrace the technology which will enable us to do this” he said.

Who would have thought … dairy cows in Havelock North?! Whittaker’s cows will enjoy the Rolls Royce system with animal comfort being the highest priority. The barn is scheduled to be fully operation in December. And, with visitors welcome, you will be able to observe this new technology in action first-hand … and make up your own mind about the ‘fit’ of dairying within Hawke’s Bay.

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