Cows milking it for choice

South Australian farmer Jake Connor. The two Connor family farms at Mount Compass are Holstein-based but added a sprinkling of Jerseys after the purchase of a neighbouring herd.

Jake Connor doesn’t mind playing second fiddle to his cows; in fact, he’s happy to sit back and let his cows decide when they want to milk.

Since the introduction of robotic milking on his family’s two farms at Mt Compass in South Australia, Jake has embraced the shift to voluntary milking.

“The data is great, but the most important thing a robot enables is cows milking voluntarily,” Jake said.

“The robot does a perfect milking every time, you get a lot of data, and you don’t have to be there milking your cows, but the big change in the farming system is going from traditional batch milking to a cow making her own decisions about when she wants to milk.

“It is a different way of farming. My passion in robots really comes from voluntary milking, which often gets overlooked when people talk about robots.”

Jake shared his experience as part of a robotic milking panel at the GA 2024: Today, Tomorrow and Beyond conference in Geelong in March.

Jake, Chelsea (holding her daughter Jade), Jodie (holding granddaughter Zoey) and Michael.

The fourth-generation dairy farmer works alongside his parents Jodie and Michael, brother Brad, sister Chelsea and Reece Donhardt, and two full-time employees.

Prior to the introduction of robots, the farm had two more full-time staff and four casuals for milking.

One of the farms has eight robots with 450 cows, the other six robots and 350 cows.

Both herds are 80 per cent Holstein and 20 per cent Jersey after they expanded about eight years ago by purchasing a neighbour’s Jersey herd.

Jake, who now also works part-time for Lely in addition to his farm duties, started investigating robots in the middle of COVID-19.

While one farm had a good 60-unit rotary dairy, the second had a 12-aside double-up milking 350 cows that needed replacing.

“We couldn’t travel and do a lot of research. I’d only ever seen one Lely farm but I believed in the system and the bank jumped on the idea,” Jake said.

They had also secured long-term milk price contract offered by La Casa Del Formaggio, providing some confidence and security.

They started with six robots three years ago. Within six months they had decided to introduce robots across the whole business and the second robotic dairy was installed in October 2023.

Jake didn’t worry about the payback period, instead concentrating on whether they could cashflow the investment and if it would create a sustainable future for the business.

There have been many positives to come from the transition, starting at work-life balance, but also in production and fertility.

“The dairy is the most important investment on your farm, but sometimes it can be down at the bottom of the list you spend money on,” Jake said.

“Saying you can’t afford to upgrade the dairy never sat well with us. Any spare money we invested back in the dairy.”

They spent $2 million on a greenfield site for the first robotic installation.

The COVID-19 threat to staff numbers was one of the initial driving factors.

“At the time of COVID, we were worried about how that would affect us, particularly relying on staff to milk cows,”Jake said.

“You still need staff, but there’s less reliance on them and it’s a better job for those working there so it attracts higher quality people.”

In fact, one key staff member, former herd manager Tom Vitkunas, returned to the business after the introduction of robots.

“Tom had been with us for 10 years but left because he was sick of milking cows. Him coming back was a blessing for us,” Jake said.

“He’s embraced this system and it has changed how he looks at the dairy industry. It’s like a different job for him.”

Jake admits the start-up period for training cows is tough.

“It’s a lot for the cows and the farmer to learn,” he said.

“You’re asking the farmer to forget all their years of dairy farming and start from scratch, but it’s only seven days till your cows learn that this is their new dairy.

“From then on, it’s a transition to cows learning they are now in charge of the system and that they milk when they want to be milked, not waiting for the farmer to tell them when they have to be milked.

“That transition happens over two to three months, but it’s not as stressful because you’re not pushing them on to the robots – it’s about letting them decide what they want to do.”

Herd management fully relies on the software.

“I have full trust in the data,” Jake said.

“From a herd management perspective, it puts you well ahead.”

The cows are happier, healthier and producing more since the introduction of robotics.

The robots have led to a 15 per cent increase in production and a similar rise in the six-week in-calf rate.

“We like to sit at 2.5 milkings per day,” Jake said.

“We know more than two milkings a day drives production which drives intake.

“Combining the milkings with three-way grazing means we’re able to get about 3kg more dry matter forage into our cows to drive production.”

The farms had fertility struggles for 20 years, despite trying many different correction measures for very little improvement.

“For whatever reason, robots have improved our six-week in-calf rate by 15 per cent which has been significant to our business,” Jake said.

“I think it’s more to do with voluntary milking. The cows eat and milk when they want to.”

He points out farmers won’t save on power bills in a robotic dairy, but the higher overall shed costs are offset by a reduction in labour costs and production benefits.

“We’ve had a significant reduction in labour, though what happens outside the shed still needs to happen, and it’s paying for itself in production and fertility.

“They’re paying for themselves twice as quick as we thought they were going to.”

The work day is now set from 7am to 4pm.

Jake said cow traffic flowed well through the robots.

“Australia has a big opportunity for more robotic dairies,” he said.

“Compared to the rest of the world, we’ve got a low percentage of cows milked by robots.

“I see them playing a massive role in our industry. They will prolong dairy careers, including smaller farms, and be an important part of our dairy industry moving forward.”

Jake Connor joined Symone Vines and Luke Wallace to discuss robotic dairies at the GA conference.
Jake Connor addresses the GA 2024: Today, Tomorrow and Beyond conference.