Technology and lifestyle upgrade

By Jeanette Severs

A voluntary automatic milking system, recently built at Yannathan in Victoria, is the focus of a succession plan for Evan and Sheriden Williams. The couple recently made major changes to its dairy and lifestyle, adopting the GEA robotic machinery.

“We needed to upgrade the dairy, but we also needed to upgrade our lifestyle. We also wanted the challenge to do something new,” Mr Williams said.

They also wanted to include the needs of the next generation. A lot of research led them to decide on a new build, rather than retrofit.

The existing 44-bay rotary platform was recently dismantled, after the automatic milking system was installed nearby.

“With the rotary, our production was 9000 litres/cow and we were breeding for increased production,” Mr Williams said.

The couple milk a split-calving 280–300 head self-replacing Holstein herd. The 122 ha farm is used for grazing cows and a 72 ha outblock is utilised to produce fodder. All grain is bought in.

“We want to ease back and our daughter and son-in-law have a baby and a toddler, so the decision to build a robot, or voluntary automatic milking system, is about giving them better lifestyle opportunities,” Mrs Williams said.

“It has also enthused us again for the industry. I’m falling in love with dairying again.”

Mr Williams said: “We were tiring of the old system; it was old when we bought the property, so it needed replacing.”

They awarded the tender for the build to John Van De Burgt, Westfalia Warragul.

“Robotic dairies are the future of dairying,” Mr Van De Burgt said.

With weather impacts, the new dairy shed and equipment was installed between February to November last year. While all the components were imported, the Westfalia Warragul team built, mounted and welded the stainless steel brackets throughout the shed.

There are currently four bays operating, with capacity to increase that by an additional two bays, when the herd size increases.

Each bay includes a ‘cow toilet’, which catches faeces and flushes it to the effluent pond.

“If you have a system like this, you don’t want to have to spend all day washing the platform and milking bays,” GEA production manager Brian Monteith said.

A special camera is used to locate the teats and the robot arm places the cups on the teats. The teats are then washed, stripped and milked. At the end of milking, teat dip is applied, the cups are removed and the cow is free to leave. She has also received her grain portion while being milked.

Between milking each cow, the cups are cleaned and disinfected automatically.

Each cow wears a collar integrated across software platforms that include monitoring how much the animal grazes, when it comes into a bay for milking and applying animal health and nutrition monitoring. That includes identifying cows in heat.

“The software is set up based on pre-determined patterns of cow behaviour and then adapts to each cow in real time,” GEA’s Jan Winke said.

“It takes about a week for the system to adapt the pre-determined baseline to new individual cows.”

The farmer receives an alert on the main system and on mobile devices if there is no normal activity recorded for a particular cow in a 12-hour period.

While there are still some teething issues, Mr and Mrs Williams are happy with the changeover so far.

“The cell counts are a bit better, there’s less mastitis and better milk quality,” Mr Williams said.

“Within a week, the cows adapted to come into the boxes. We’ve still got some work to do training the cows to come into the dairy. We’re still doing a bit of fetching — going out into the paddock and bringing cows up to the dairy.

“The computer system is good for letting us know who’s overdue for milking.”

The plan is to increase milking frequency from twice-a-day.

“Going forward, we’d like to see them coming in three times a day when fresh in milk,” Mr Williams said.

“With voluntary milking, the cow decides when it comes to be milked and gets grain reward and when she’s milked she gets sent to a new paddock for fresh grass,” Mr Monteith said.

There is an override manual mode on the milking machine if needed.

The milk from freshly calved cows goes direct to the calf shed for feeding to calves; bypassing collection in the vat.

When the milk in the vat is collected, the milk from cows in the dairy bypasses into the buffer tank.

“This bypass is unique to robotic systems,” Mr Van De Burgt said.

A field day was held in April for dairy farmers to tour the new dairy and hear about its build and management of the system.