Robotic dairy is world-first
A dairy being built on Paul and Marsha Smith’s farm at Mepunga in south-west Victoria is breaking new ground in more ways than one.
Not only is it the first GEA DairyProQ robotic rotary dairy to be built in Australia, it will be the first in the world to operate on a pasture-based farming system.
It’s a big change with a multi-million-dollar price tag, but Paul is confident the automated dairy will revolutionise his farm and ensure his long-term success.
His decision to take on the new technology follows years of research, starting with YouTube videos and followed by lengthy discussions with GEA and farmers who use the system.
Paul has been on the family farm since leaving school the day he turned 15, some 27 years ago. His father Barry was born on a nearby farm and Paul’s brother Stephen now operates that business.
“Dad bought this farm 43 years ago. It was a lot smaller than it is now but he slowly built it up,” Paul said.
Until six years ago, Stephen worked alongside Paul and sharefarmers were on the other property. When the sharefarmers left, Stephen took over that farm.
The brothers split the farms equally, including irrigation and dryland, and now operate as separate entities but they still share ideas and machinery.
Stephen built a new rotary dairy about three years ago, and Paul knew he needed to update as well.
Paul and Marsha milk 750 mostly Friesian cows on 294 hectares, including 111 ha of irrigation. It’s a tight stocking rate, which Paul admits can be a challenge.
The existing rotary was built in 1998 and has a limited life span.
“It’s a 50-unit rotary with all the bells and whistles but it’s getting long in the tooth and I needed to replace it,” Paul said.
“I couldn’t see the point in spending that much money and replacing it with the same thing. New rotary dairies are nice but it’s still a 30-year-old product.
“I’d been following DPQ for about five years on YouTube so I called GEA around Christmas 2020 to inquire about it.
“We had a lot of discussion with head office in Germany and I’ve talked to farmers who have the system.
“I’m pretty confident. I’ve been following this for about five years and seen where they started from and now, they’re spread all over the Northern Hemisphere.”
The DairyProQ robotic rotary is being built about 300 metres from the existing dairy, which started its life as a six-a-side herringbone and is likely to be gutted and converted to a shed. Paul hopes to be milking in the new dairy in August.
It means a couple of lucerne paddocks have been lost but Paul said a new site was needed due to the farm’s growth. Milking currently takes about three-and-a-half hours in the afternoon, four hours in the morning.
The farm is downsizing from 50 to 40 stalls.
“We have nothing to benchmark how fast it is going to milk the cows, but we’ve put in a contingency,” Paul said.
“We’ve built a 50-platform with 10 blank spaces. If it’s too slow or in the future I grow, we’ve got room for 10 more robots.”
In discussions with GEA and local dealers Dairy Tech SE, Paul suggested a hybrid voluntary system.
“That’s how I want to run it; it will be similar to what we’re already doing,” he said.
“We run batt-latch automatic gates that open at 4.30 in the morning and the cows are waiting for us at five. I thought, what if I open the latches at 3.30 or four in the morning, the cows walk up and it automatically starts milking them before we get there.
“We still turn up at five and bring in the stragglers, everything gets milked and led into a feedpad — we’re only there for the last half of the milking.
“Within a few weeks after they adjust, I think the first 300 to 400 will be fighting each other to get on, which is what they do at the current dairy.”
There are about 35 DairyProQs installed around the world but this is the first in Australia — and all others are used in barn systems.
“We’re going to be the first full-time pasture-based system in the world to use it,” Paul said.
“Our management is going to be quite different to any other that has been built.”
However, that doesn’t mean Paul will change his farming practices.
“The whole idea is to run with the same systems that we have now without the extra labour,” he said.
That will help with herd health and production, it will measure the cell count of each individual quarter on every cow, every milking. I can see a cell count threshold and it will dump the affected quarter while putting the other three in the vat. I’ll never get a high cell count and it will flag any problem on the computer and I can treat the cow accordingly. Herd health and management I believe will be one of the biggest windfalls.
Paul has two full-time staff who will remain with the business, but he will no longer have to rely on backpackers to fill two other positions.
“Getting young fellas to get out of bed at five in the morning to milk cows in the middle of winter is almost done,” he said.
“This industry has staffing problems and I can only see that getting worse and more expensive.
“When I started, milking 400 cows wasn’t too bad of a job. Now we’re milking 750 or 800 and shoulders, knees and backs are going to start deteriorating.
“My cousin Craig has worked here 27 years and he’s a bit older than me and we’re both starting to get tired and sore from milking cows. This technology is going to protect us from that.
“This is not a five-year investment, it’s a 20-year plus investment. Hopefully my kids get involved one day and this is going to be more appealing to them.”
Paul and Marsha can potentially double herd size without adding labour in the shed.
While the exact cost isn’t being revealed, Paul confirms it is a multi-million-dollar project with an expected payback within 10 years.
GEA is bringing an expert from Canada to look after the launch and to train Paul.
“I’m going to have to do a lot of learning with it,” Paul said.
“I’ve been talking with farmers overseas who’ve already got this system and everyone says don’t even worry about it milking the cows, and the data you’re going to get from each cow is going to blow your mind.
“That will help with herd health and production, it will measure the cell count of each individual quarter on every cow, every milking. I can set a cell count threshold and it will dump the affected quarter while putting the other three in the vat.
“I’ll never get a high cell count and it will flag any problem on the computer and I can treat the cow accordingly.
“Herd health and management, I believe, will be one of the biggest windfalls.”
The system is designed for easy operation. Cows will walk into a large, round holding yard and then onto the platform to get milked and then walk out.
If a cow hasn’t been milked out, she has to get off but will be drafted back into the main holding yard and come around a second time.
There are four separate draft yards for AI, sale, lame or dry cows and the rest will walk through to the feedpad.
GEA Farm Technologies Australia boss Andrew Stansfield said the company and Dairy Tech SE were proud to bring the automated technology to Australia, and he predicted it would create a lot of interest.
“It’s our first DPQ in Australia and we’re not going to let Paul or the industry down,” Andrew said.
“We’re working together to make sure this is a success, with full support from Germany and the expert coming from Canada.”
Andrew said one of the real benefits of DairyProQ was its serviceability and its ability to create healthy and productive cows.
“If one robot box goes down you can keep going with the other 39 while it is being repaired. DPQ dairies can go up to 80 stalls where you can milk 600 cows per hour.”
With the DairyProQ rotary parlour every milking procedure step is performed inside the teat cup in a fully automated process; it includes key sensors to constantly analyse and monitor the flow of milk and industrial touchscreens provide thorough insights into the milking process directly at the rotary parlour.
One of the underlying concepts of the DairyProQ is that the milking stall modules operate independently of one another, with a robotic module at every stall. It is the only system that enables reattachment and udder access at any time.
For Paul, it’s a big step and he’s been happy with the support.
“You throw a lot of money at it and you put your balls on the line, but I’m confident it will be a success.”