Robotic milking: the gentle touch of machine on moo?

FutureDairy project leader Dr Kendra Kerrisk is something of an icon in her field of milking automation and so it’s very exciting to have her write this guest post for Milk Maid Marian. There are already a handful of robotic dairies in Australia and this looks to be the way of the future. Ironically, Kendra explains, it may allow dairy farmers to spend even more “quality time” with their cows.

Robotic milking is a relatively new concept for Australian dairy farmers even though our European counterparts are well accustomed to the idea. It is a technology that I have had the honour of working with for 10 years now and there a lot to be send for this new way of milking cows.

To the less informed, the concept may conjure up images of metal on flesh that are less appealing than the tender human touch. In fact the contact with the cow is every bit at gentle as the conventional approach and one of my fondest observations is that robotic milking farmers have an increased ability to enjoy the time that they spend with their cows when they no longer have to attach milking cups to every teat of every cow twice every day. It seems that the saying “quality not quantity” has a place when it comes to farmer/cow interactions.

Robotic milking farmers are unanimous in their opinion that the technology creates a farm system that results in very relaxed and laid back cows. The idea of robotic milking is that milking occurs 24 hours per day and that the process is voluntary (i.e. the cow completes the process without human intervention). Whenever I spend time with visitors at a robotic dairy (either our research facility or on commercial farms) the visitors are always deeply influenced by how quite and calm the milking process is with robots.

With robotic milking the cow chooses when to be milked and moves around the farm system at ‘cow pace’.

Cows in paddock with robotic milker in background

The cows are moving one by one hoorah hoorah…

Whilst I have been involved in researching the application of robotic milking I have also had the pleasure of being involved with many commercial farmers as they adopt this new way of farming. The farmer must learn a new management style whereby the farm is managed in such a way that the cows makes choices that suit the farmer and the farm targets. Cows move around the farm to gain access to incentives and by default can find themselves at the dairy for milking when their time is due.

Cow walks through robotic gates

With robotic milking the cows bring themselves to the dairy (they even operate specially designed one-way gates themselves) and take themselves back to the paddock.

The concept of robotic milking is creating a work environment that allows farmers and their employees to focus on higher level management tasks. In this manner they have the opportunity to manage their herd through an increase in the level of real time data that becomes available to them allowing them to focus on individual cows that require attention. The real attraction is the more flexible working hours that reduce the need for the early morning starts and commitment to milking cows twice a day. And the bonus for the cows is that they can now manage themselves in a manner that best suits them as individuals or as social groups.

Robotic dairy

These ladies know exactly how to manage the system to ensure they don’t miss out on the “treats” and “rewards” that are available to them.

Cows are creatures of habit and they truly appreciate a predictable environment. Robotic milking is exactly that and the outcome is a herd of cows that are very easy to work with since they become extremely calm and ‘chilled out’. With all of my experience in the area of robotic milking I have absolutely no doubt that this is a way of farming that is going to be increasingly adopted on commercial dairy farms in Australia and around the world.

Possibly one of the greatest bonuses is that I reckon dairy farming is going to increase in appeal with the younger generation which is exactly what our industry needs if we are to remain sustainable far into the future. If we achieve that they we are all winners because it goes a long way to securing our ability to continue to provide Australians with fresh, safe and nutritious dairy products that are produced in our own backyard!

There’s always time for a good scratch!!

There’s always time for a good scratch!!

7 Comments

Filed under Cows, Farm, Machinery and equipment

7 responses to “Robotic milking: the gentle touch of machine on moo?

  1. Ian A

    Interesting article, thanks.
    What is an average capital cost to set up a robotic milking operation? Would it suit small and medium producers or is it just for larger scale farm?

    • milkmaidmarian

      Hi Ian,
      I’ll let Kendra answer in more detail when she’s free but the units are expensive, which is why they are so rare in Australia (although they seem to be getting more viable every year). Scale is not really the issue because the average Australian dairy farm would need a few.

      • Ian A

        Thanks Marian (and Kendra)

        Sorry if these are silly questions but, with robotic milking, do cows give more or less milk? That is, would a cow choose to be milked, say, three times a day rather than two (ie yielding less each milking but more in 24hrs)? Also, if the cows are coming and going at all times, how do you monitor for illness and disease?

    • Hi Ian
      Sorry for the delayed response, spent the long weekend camping. Actually the machines are generally better suited to small to medium scale operations. Generally the price difference between building a new conventional dairy and a new AMS is relatively small for herd sizes up to around 300-400 cows. You spend more on milking equipment but you save on concrete and yarding if you design it well. We used to always talk about $250,000 for an AMS unit but the prices have come back with a favourable exchange rate and there are three brands available in Australia now. For some number on economics you could try the ‘Economics of AMS’ report at: http://www.futuredairy.com.au/latestnews.php

      • Regarding your question on milk production. Really and truly there is not much difference in milk production caused by the robots unless the cows are fed more or milked more (assuming one of those factors was limiting production before). One of the beauties of AMS is that the cows can milk themselves at intervals shorter than 12 hours in early lactation so they can end up with something between 2 and 3 milkings per day (e.g. 2.4 milkings/day). It is not practical to milk cows at these intervals in a conventional system. How often the cow chooses to be milked is driven by production level and appetite and how the farmer manages the incentives. So you can easily have a high producing cow milking only 1.3 times per day if you don’t manage the feed allocations accurately and provide the cows with 18 hours worth of feed in one location.

        Detection of illness and disease is predominantly through monitoring of electronic reports. As a couple of examples, milk sensors pick up changes to milk quality in individual quarters, feed consumption reports help with detection of displaced abomasum’s, milking freqency alerts help with detection of lameness and RFM’s. When the farmer wants to inspect or treat a cow, he simply tells the system to draft the cow when she next visits, the draft pen should be a comfortable area that either has rubber matting, feed and water or that opens out to a paddock. The farmer then checks these drafted cows when he is next at the dairy.

  2. Ian A

    Hi Kendra
    Thanks so much for the detailed responses. It seems such a sensible evolution of the process.

  3. The automatic milking rotary dairy has been designed by Kendra and the team for larger dairies. This technology is still in its infancy but the first commercial farm using it is up and running in Tassie.
    It should provide another option for larger Australian herds.
    As Marian says of this new technology – it should appeal to young farmers and that’s certainly the case with the young farmers who are managing that farm.
    Have a read of this piece and a look at the video at http://www.farmonline.com.au/farmmags/australiandairyfarmer/article.aspx?articleid=7889

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