New robotic dairy off to smooth start

Dr Kendra Davis and Terry Osborne discuss the day ahead inside the high-tech automatic dairy at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute at Camden.
Dr Kendra Davis and Terry Osborne discuss the day ahead inside the high-tech automatic dairy at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute at Camden.

Severe lack of pasture has been the only limitation in assessing the capacity of the new automatic milking system at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute at Camden.

Six months after the FutureDairy high-tech robotic facility opened, researcher, Dr Kendra Davis, and her colleagues have been pleasantly surprised by the smooth start.

By December, cows in early lactation were averaging two to three milkings a day.

Dr Davis and her team are now conducting a range of trials to determine pasture use, potential machine throughput (that is, how many cows can be milked per machine) and potential production levels.

Data from these component trials and the farm system will eventually be used to determine the economic viability of automatic milking under Australian conditions.

“It is going to be challenging to get cows to maintain milking frequencies, approximately twice a day, when the bulk of their feed comes from pasture,” Dr Davis said.

Reduction of the pasture due to drought has prevented them from addressing that yet.

Otherwise, there have been very few technical hiccups. The robots ran smoothly without major breakdowns.

“The commissioning process was far beyond my expectations and much better than my previous experience,” said Dr Davis who was a researcher with the Greenfield Project’s automatic milking system in New Zealand.

“We were expecting some teething problems both with the technology and getting the cows used to being milked by robots.”

Training the cows on NSW Department of Primary Industries property was trouble-free and they quickly learnt to voluntarily move around the farm and present themselves at the dairy to be milked.

Under Australian grazing systems, voluntary movement of cows is critical to the success of an automatic milking system.

The FutureDairy is laid out so that cows travel in a straight line from the entry race into the waiting yard and then into the milking station, and out to the feed pad.

One-way gates in the dairy prevent cows moving in the wrong direction.

“A combination of well-trained staff and reliable technology set us up for smooth operations from day one,” said Dr Davis.

“It is essential to have patient staff with excellent stock-handling skills to train cows to use an automatic dairy.”

The sooner a cow manages to come to the dairy and enter the milking unit without intervention, the quicker she adapts and gains confidence.

At Camden, limited pasture gave the cows a big feed incentive, to teach them to voluntarily move around the system during the training period.

They received concentrates while being milked, and after exiting, they had access to a feed pad of maize silage and hay rations.

“The location of the feed pad immediately after the milking station is a very good incentive for cows to leave once milking is completed,” said Dr Davis.

Training a small group of cows initially enabled full commissioning of the machines and trouble shooting without the pressure of the full herd.

It also allowed the first group of cows to lead new cows through the system.

In FutureDairy’s case, it took just three milkings for all cows to voluntarily come to the dairy and five days for them all to move to and from the dairy on their own.

From their experience the FutureDairy team has created some guidelines for a smooth introduction of a grazing herd to an automatic milking system.

The guidelines relate to staff training, dairy layout, stockhandling, feed incentives, cow training and stage of lactation.

“These are just guidelines because there’s no magic recipe,” Dr Davis said.

“All farms are unique and the process of decommissioning the old dairy and commissioning a new one depends on the individual situation.”

FutureDairy’s major sponsors are Dairy Australia, the NSW Department of Primary Industries and the University of Sydney.

Other supporters include the Department of Primary Industries (Vic), Melbourne University, the Dairy Research Foundation and DIDCO.