Dairy farming is New Zealand's biggest industry. However, the labour-intensive nature of dairy farming could limit productivity gains. Will automatic milking provide a solution?
The importance of the dairy industry in New Zealand
The dairy industry is New Zealand’s biggest export earner. This is largely because our farms currently produce milk more efficiently than anywhere else in the world. Continued improvements to this productivity will have a big effect on the standard of living, not only for dairy farming families but for all New Zealanders.
Over the years, New Zealand has developed a very special farming system, including:
- efficient grazing (as opposed to the high use of supplemental feed in other countries)
- large-scale processing of products
- innovative dairy products and creative marketing
- lots of scientists researching better ideas .
The history of dairy farming in New Zealand
Over the last 65 years, New Zealand dairy farming has developed from hand milking in walk-through dairy sheds to machine milking to the use of massive herringbone and rotary sheds.
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The problem now is that New Zealand dairy farms are becoming bigger, and the average herd size has almost doubled since 1990. More farm workers are needed to keep up with the work, but there are fewer around. Robotic milking could help to solve this problem. It could also have a big impact on the lifestyles of dairy farmers.
What is robotic milking?
Robotic milking is when a type of robot called an automatic milking system (AMS) replaces a person to do all the jobs involved in milking a herd of cows. The system is set up to:
- guide the cows to the milking shed
- identify each cow individually
- milk the cows
- check the milk
- record data about individual cows.
The Greenfield Project
Internationally, AMSs have been used effectively on farms where cows live mostly in barns, but would it work for New Zealand cows farmed in paddocks? The Greenfield Project was set up by DairyNZ in Hamilton to see if automatic milking can work in a pasture-based system, and if it can be economic for New Zealand farms.
The first Kiwi cow was milked by the robot Merlin in 2001 at DairyNZ’s Greenfield Project farm.
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Training the cows
On the Greenfield farm, the cows have to take themselves from the paddock to the automatic milking machine and then back out to the paddock again. The cows’ movement is directed using temporary fences and a system of cow-controlled and computer-controlled gates.
The cows have to be taught how to use the AMS and how to take themselves to be milked. Incentives or rewards (such as water or the promise of fresh grass) are used to encourage the cows to move into the selection units.
Monitoring cows and milk
An AMS means a lot of information about individual cows can be recorded, including cow behaviour and detailed information about their milk. Having this information allows farmers to manage their farms more efficiently and monitor milk quality as well as the health of individual cows.
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The project involves collaboration between organisations
The Greenfield Project has DairyNZ scientists and farmers working with engineers from Sensortec Ltd. The University of Waikato and the Waikato Automatic Milking Farmer Group also help out. People with a range of different skills are needed to make this project successful.
The fact that several companies are involved on the project means that the ownership of ideas that are generated (intellectual property) has had to be considered.
Becoming a commercial reality
When the Greenfield project was set up in 2001, researchers predicted the first commercial farm to adopt the technology in New Zealand would be established in 2008. In fact, two farms adopted AMS in that year.
By 2012, nine New Zealand farms had adopted AMS, with several more to follow soon. The farms using the technology are spread throughout the country and include a broad range of farming systems, from organic pastoral farms to fully housed systems, and herds ranging from 180–800 cows.
Support networks help generate knowledge
Having proved the concept, the Greenfield farm is no longer in operation. DairyNZ’s focus is now on working with the farmers to develop a greater understanding of the technology and to establish an infrastructure to support them.
DairyNZ facilitates regular discussion groups with the farmers, enabling them to share experiences and learn from one another. This on-going networking is helping to identify and solve issues and generate knowledge and could lead to further research in the future. DairyNZ also has a section on its website to disseminate knowledge to help farmers who are using or considering adopting automatic milking.
Flexible working day key benefit for farmers
The first farmers to adopt automatic milking in New Zealand have been motivated by various factors, including:
- more flexible working hours and less labour intensity
- ease of attracting staff
- wanting to keep up with new technology
- looking to the future.
According to a 2008 DairyNZ survey, most New Zealand farm dairies are 20 years old or more. For farmers considering upgrading or replacing their existing facilities in the future, robotic milking offers another option as well as the potential to change the traditional lifestyle of New Zealand farmers.