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Solar-powered robotic dairy takes NSW farm into the future

By Sophie Baldwin

Investing in a robotic dairy has given Bulahdelah dairy farmers Kay and John Smith the chance to take their business, Myall River Pastoral Co, well into the future.

Approaching what some would best describe as their retirement years, Kay and John might have retired from the physical act of milking but not the industry they love — the three DeLaval V300 robotic milkers, with provision for a fourth, were installed in January and the couple couldn’t be happier.

“Our investment has given us a new lease on dairying,” Kay said.

“We considered all our options including moving to beef, building a rotary and even selling the farm — but we both wanted to stay in the industry.

“John has so much knowledge and experience and it would be a shame to not find a way to continue.”

The robotic dairy was built on a greenfield site on the NSW mid-north coast property, and is now run in conjunction with the existing 10-a-side herringbone swing-over.

The robot dairy is currently milking 110 cows off a milking platform of 100 ha, while employed labour in the herringbone is pushing through 180 cows off 120 ha.

“Our long-term intention is to continue to run both,” John said.

“There is a good synergy between both because not every cow adapts to a robotic system and we have found any cow that has been unsatisfactory has been able to go back to the herringbone — we haven’t had to sell any cows at all.”

The process to expand began about three years ago when the Smiths began looking at their future options.

Son Andrew spent some time in Tasmania on a robotic dairy farm and suggested his parents look at the option.

“I initially laughed and said ‘who is paying?’,” John said.

Once the decision to go ahead with the robots was made, the couple also decided to build off-grid — with not a single electrical wire in sight.

“We knew a robotic dairy used twice the amount of power and runs 24-hours-a-day, and with milk continually entering the vat the refrigeration costs are quite large,” Kay said.

The dairy shed is covered in 100 kW of solar panels and the solar room is full of batteries and inverters, which are capable of storing enough energy from one day to the next with minimal generator use in inclement weather.

The back-up diesel generator is capable of recharging the batteries while, at the same time, takes over the supply of power to the dairy.

Even in the cooler and cloudy weather of winter, the generator is only operating for about an hour a day.

“We designed the shed to suit solar panels,” Kay said.

“It is north-facing and the roof is angled to allow the panels to be flat on the roof.

“We also added 10,000 litres of glycol storage. This glycol is cooled during the day to utilise solar energy.

“All pumps are variable speed and a heat recovery unit has been installed to minimise the draw on power.

“In terms of installing the solar system and additional equipment it was about 2.2 times the cost of installing mains electricity, but we project the system will pay for itself in four years — it is weird to not get a power bill.”

The robotic dairy is totally off-grid and powered by a 100kW solar system. The shed was purpose-built and orientated to take full advantage of the sun.

The big bonus of the whole system is the consistency in power.

“Power to our valley has been fairly average with lots of dips and surges — this new system is smooth and synchronises to the generator without a glitch,” Kay said.

Transitioning cows across to the robots was relatively simple, according to son Stuart.

“We brought 40 cows across when everything was shiny and new,” he said.

“They were the trailblazers and from that point on we brought 10 down every third day.

“A great benefit we have seen is how much calmer the cows are.

“There is no pressure with voluntary traffic and we no longer have 200 cows standing on concrete waiting to be milked.”

Stuart helped a heifer through the shed for her first time on the morning Dairy News visited.

“She walked in, I guided her to the robot, the cups went on and that was it,” he said.

“She will now follow the other cows and in a couple of days she will be fine.”

The milk from fresh and treated cows is automatically diverted away from the vat and after each cow is milked the robot cleans and rinses the cups and the floor to help with infection control.

The dairy shuts down every day for an hour for milk collection and cleaning.

Each robotic unit is capable of milking 80 cows. The dairy was built with three robots and provision for a fourth.

The Smiths have been astounded by the huge range of data the robots instantly supply, including milk per quarter, historical data and the mastitis detection index (MDI), while one of the robots also has an online cell counter.

The availability of this data allows good management decisions to be made.

The milking herd now accesses three pasture grazings a day, and if a cow heads into the dairy without seven hours passing between her last recorded milking time, she will get redirected to a new grazing area by the automatic draft gate.

In the short term the Smiths plan to reduce the milking herd in the herringbone to about 160 and increase the robotic dairy to 240.

The installation of the fourth robot will see that number increase to more than 300.

“We aim to reduce the workload in the herringbone and, while we can keep the cost of staffing the second dairy profitable, we will continue along this path,” Kay said.

Staff for the whole farm includes two full-time employees, a trainee and a casual worker.

The addition of the robotic dairy has allowed cow numbers to increase while not having to increase the labour hours. Staff are now able to spend more of their time on the many and varied tasks on the farm.

The robotic dairy was built on a greenfield site and the Smiths run the new dairy in conjunction with their existing herringbone dairy.

The Holstein dairy herd (including a few Jerseys) calve all year round.

It has been important to both Kay and John to consider the environment while running their dairy operation.

They have 3 km of Myall River frontage and a third of the 770 ha farm in untouched bush.

“We worked with the Hunter Local Landcare Service when we built the new dairy and have installed 25 km of electric fencing to create laneways and keep the cows out of sensitive areas including wetlands and river frontage,” John said.

They have seen the number of farmers in their valley reduce from 12 in the 1980s to just two — and both these dairies are owned by Myall River Pastoral Co.

“We have no more plans to increase that number either,” John laughed.