Pasture-based automated milking system making good progress

Technical officer Shannon Bennetts and researcher Dr Kendra Davis at NSW Department of Primary Industries’ automatic milking system dairy at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute at Camden.

Staff at the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ automatic milking system (AMS) dairy at Camden say they have come a long way to showing that a pasture-based AMS is feasible. The dairy was commissioned 14 months ago.

Between the start of last June and the end of May this year, the dairy produced 791,569 kilograms of milk - an average 7131 kg milk per cow, from an average of 111 cows.

The 31 spring 2006 calved cows are currently at an average stage of lactation of 285 days in milk and have produced 6434kg milk/cow; they appear on target to produce close to 6800kg milk/cow at 305 days in milk.

Researcher Dr Kendra Davis says between mid-September 2006 and mid-June 2007 the cows have consumed 11,053kg of dry matter per hectare, with a projected annual pasture use close to 12,000kg DM/ha.

"At start-up we achieved early lactation average milking frequencies of 1.7-1.9 milkings per cow per day and more recently have held it above twice a day," she said

Getting the feed balance right is important, both to encourage the cows to continue to move voluntarily around the system and to ensure optimal production levels.

"Making sure cows regularly run out of pasture provides them the incentive to come in for milking and a supplementary feed afterwards," Dr Davis said.

If the animals have too much feed from the night paddock they are less likely to come in the morning. Too little and they all come at once, meaning the last one in line waits for a couple of hours for its turn.

"In giving them a reason to come, we also have to be careful not to upset production volumes.

"If they got too little pasture regularly, it could mean they would then generate less milk."

Heifers have proven extremely easy to train, generally volunteering from the paddock and milking themselves unassisted within two days of being introduced to the system. However, one key area requiring future research is the potential of heifers for improvement.

So far they have received no pre-calving pre-training and have produced 75 per cent of the volume of mature cows.

"It is likely that heifer performance could be improved up to 85pc, by ensuring that they have some level of pre-training so that at calving they have the ability to compete with cows, move unassisted and confidently around the system, and become familiar with the machines and the chino head stalls in the feed pad," Dr Davis said.

Two staff operate the Camden AMS farm. Their average starting time is between 7-9am, generally ending between 4-5pm. Generally weekends require about three hours a day by one staff member.

Since an AMS system operates around the clock it is important for someone to remain on-call after hours.

"Staff have no problem accepting the on-call work given the flexibility of our working days and much reduced working hours, compared to experiences with conventional dairy farming," Dr Davis said.

The average after-hours call-out rate is three stop alarms a week, with the capacity to deal with many from a computer at home, without leaving the house.