Installing an automatic milking (robotic) system on their farm is good business for a multi-generation dairy family at Buln Buln.
The investment has proven efficient for workflow, as well as good value if the family unexpectedly decides to quit the dairy industry, according to Darryl Hammond.
Darryl and Trudi Hammond, have installed the six-bay robotic dairy system since they took over the farm, Melaleuca Park, from her parents, Geoff and Helen Hewson.
The Holstein-Friesian herd, which grazes across 227 ha of steep, hilly country in West Gippsland, produces 2.5 million litres of milk. All of the milk is sold to Alba Cheese, at Tullamarine.
Mr Hammond said it was a choice between upgrading the dairy to a rotary platform or the robotic system, which was installed in March 2015.
He compared various rotary and robotic systems and found little variation in price; but was impressed by the technical support for the robotic dairy system.
“They teach you to avoid human error,” Mr Hammond said.
“Farming involves the whole family now. The kids can run the dairy, because it’s about technology rather than strength and physical ability.”
It cost $350 000 to install a purpose-built shed with cement floor, including the office to house the computer to manage the system.
When Darryl and Trudi took over the farm, the 20-a-side herringbone, with automatic cup removers, installed 17 years previously, was still being used.
They already had a quiet herd, so changing over to a robotic system was relatively seamless and straightforward, with minimal retraining involved for the cows.
The farm has an extensive laneway system, to facilitate easy cow movement across the farm. That includes an underpass, because the farm is on either side of a main road.
“We did extensive research before we decided what we wanted to change over to,” Mr Hammond said.
“We wanted a system that optimised cow health and happiness and worked with their natural biorhythms. Our cow health is so much better, with no lameness.
“We wanted to take the pressure off us and have a system where our (three teenage) children could work on the farm. We wanted to be able to expand the system, if any of them want to come on as the next generation.
“It also needed to be good value, in case we wanted to exit dairy — the robotic dairy units hold their re-sell value well.
“This system minimises the amount of time the cows are standing on concrete.”
There’s no pressure on cows in the laneways. Which means better maintenance of the laneways as well as cow health.
“If they can see the dairy, they’ll move well,” Mrs Hammond said.
“Before the cows are milked, the robot brushes the teats during the udder-cleaning phase, which encourages letdown. Each quarter (teat) is individually milked.”
Mr Hammond ran the cows through the new system over four milking sessions, while still using the herringbone dairy. The following four milkings, the cows were held in the robotic dairy.
“Only one cow was unco-operative,” Mrs Hammond said.
“By the end of five days’ use, the cows preferred the robotic system,” Geoff Hewson said.
Efficiencies are installed in the dairy shed to facilitate and support the best cow movement.
Water troughs are available for the cows to access while they wait to be milked, but not post-milking, so the cows have to go back to the paddock.
Grain stations are installed in the milking shed so the cows walk past them after milking.
“If they only take five minutes to milk or if they come back too early to milk, the system is calibrated to funnel them through the shed and they get ad lib access to grain,” Mrs Hammond said.
“The system is also calibrated to move them to a new laneway and paddock on their way out of the dairy.”
While the herd numbered 500 milkers going through the herringbone dairy, they have been able to drop to 420 cows without losing production.
“There’s been a 15 per cent increase in production and the computer shows the average cow is electing to be milked 2.8 times per day.
“Depending on the season and quality of the feed, milk solids has grown from 450 kg to 550 kg. The somatic cell count is good.
“The cows didn’t drop fertility, either,” Mr Hammond said.
Each bay does a self-clean after each cow is milked.
“We also shut down each robot for a system clean, twice a day,” Mrs Hammond said.
A generator kicks in during power outages, common enough although the farm is on the peri-urban outskirts of Melbourne.
The generator ensures no loss of data in the integrated computer system; it also means the cows can continue to be milked with minimal waiting time.
“The robotic system frees up time to do other work,” Mr Hammond said.
“The farmer has to be very good at pasture management. We still go out and check water troughs and shift the fence tape.”
He feeds silage in the paddocks where the cows are. His preference is to grow pasture and crops rather than spend the bulk of the day milking cows.