Robots future-proof farming

The Vening family — Jarrod, Lisa, Trent, Shawn and Peter — have invested in a new shed, supporting infrastructure and eight new Lely Astronaut A4 robots, on a greenfield site on their dairy farm at Hedley, in South Gippsland, Victoria.

It is nearly 12 months since a greenfield site on an existing family farm began operation as a robot dairy milking system.

The Vening family at Hedley, Victoria — Peter, Lisa, and their sons, Shawn, Jarrod and Trent — are milking their cows in eight new Lely Astronaut A4 robots, in a purpose-built shed.

The original Vening family began farming in 1923 at Hedley, in South Gippsland. They milked Jersey cows.

Fast forward, Peter and Lisa Vening took over the family dairy farm in 1999 and installed a 30-aside swingover herringbone dairy.

“In about 1990, Peter took over AI responsibilities on his parents farm,” Lisa said.

“He used a lot of Friesian semen, and we built it up so the majority of the herd was crossbred by 1999, when we bought the farm off Peter’s mum.

“By then we were milking 280 to 300 cows; and we also built a 30-aside swingover dairy in 2000.”

The next major modification was to install a bale feeding system with headstalls in 2007.

“We then added cup removers,” Lisa said.

On a holiday in England in 2013, the couple viewed a Lely milking robot at a dairy fair and their plans for installing robots on their own farm began that day.

By this stage they were milking 360 to 390 cows.

They also admired the computer programs used by European and UK dairy farmers, and came back to Australia, keen to find something suitable for their farm.

“It was hard to find in Australia, built for our farming conditions,” Lisa said.

“Later that year, we saw what we wanted at Korumburra, at the South Gippsland Dairy Expo.

“It was the Jantec herd management software and it was able to take all the cow information — all the herd testing results, the calving dates for each cow, and time for drying off.

“It was so good to have all that data in there. Now we take those type of computer programs for granted.”

Since the 1990s, Lisa and Peter Vening have overseen significant change on their dairy farm and have secured an ongoing future for their family.

The Jantec computer system was installed in 2014 in the dairy, along with automatic drafting gates.

The software enabled Peter and Lisa to use data about herd health to inform their decision making, keep accurate records about breeding and genetics, and draft cows that needed veterinary care, as well as separate treated milk in the dairy.

In 2017, with their three sons interested in working on the dairy farm, the family began talking about the future of the business and succession planning.

“Shawn finished Year 12 and he decided during that year he wanted to be part of the farm,” Lisa said.

“When Jarrod finished school, he went into an apprenticeship, then worked in Western Australia. Two years ago, he came home from WA.

“Trent was at school and he decided during the pandemic to commit full-time to farming.

“We’ve all worked together over the past two years and it’s been good.”

During that time, Peter and Lisa invested in more land to build the self-sufficiency of their business.

“We bought a second farm about four years ago — the farm up the road, with pivot irrigation, so we could be self-sufficient,” Lisa said.

They grow all their own fodder and only buy in the herd’s grain portion.

“We also have a block for dry cows and heifers that’s separate to the milking area,” Lisa said.

Cows wait in comfort for their turn to be milked by robots in the new dairy shed.

Having their three sons involved full-time in the farm coincided with Lisa and Peter deciding to go ahead with installing a Lely robot dairy; a decision that was always going to happen.

But the timing of it was also affected by local infrastructure work — a public access recreational rail trail would go straight through their property, directly behind the herringbone dairy shed and yards.

“When we knew they were going to build it, we had a lot of issues because the dairy yard opened right onto the rail trail, so there was no way of holding the cows back from crossing it to get to their paddock,” Lisa said.

“We knew we had to do something that was safer.

“The old dairy shed was in close proximity to daily passers-by.

“We didn’t want people walking right past where we’re working with animals.”

The new shed began operation in May 2023 and has enabled herd growth to 560 cows.

Rather than retrofit into an old shed, Peter and Lisa decided to establish their dairy platform on a greenfield site on their farm, so the milking and animal husbandry operations were not visible from the public access rail trail.

Their decision coalesced with installing eight robots into the large new shed, with space for an additional two robots in the future.

“The effluent ponds were the first things constructed, in April 2022,” Lisa said.

“That fill was the build-up for the shed site and laneways.”

The new shed was built by a contractor. Lely technicians installed the Lely gear.

“Everything else we organised and built ourselves — the new yards constructed alongside the shed, the steel work, the tracks and laneways, the staff room and offices in the shed,” Lisa said.

A new feedpad is currently being constructed alongside the dairy shed.

They enlarged a dam, and the Vening family has used the fill from that to build up a feed pad, currently under construction outside the dairy shed.

Rainwater is captured from the shed roof, stored in tanks and used for the plant wash. Dam water is used for the yard wash, and is recycled into the first effluent pond.

In the vat room, the milk from freshly calved cows is saved and stored in a vat specific for calves. From there, it is decanted into a milk tractor and taken to the calf shed, to feed the calves.

The milk vat has capacity to store two days of milking and when the truck arrives for collection, a bypass tank becomes part of the system.

“While the milk is being pumped out of the main vat, and its self-clean occurs, the bypass vat holds the milk that’s being collected from the cows,” Lisa said.

When they decided to invest in the Lely robots, the Vening family focused on building up their herd numbers, in readiness for the new dairy.

They also brought some Normande genetics into the Friesian herd.

“For a couple of years we used sexed semen, so we could build up the number of heifers,” Lisa said.

“We couldn’t go higher than milking 420 in the old dairy.

“Once they finish calving this year, we’ll be milking 560 cows. We’ll probably be selling cows now.”

The impetus for installing the robots was a recreational rail trail built near the Vening farm’s herringbone shed.

The robots were turned on in May 2023. Lisa said the cows transitioned well into the new system, and while production dropped in the first week, it returned to normal by the second week, a level that has continued.

The herd continues to be split-calving, and in autumn many of the heifers calved and transitioned into the new dairy. Lisa said it was a longer but safer transition than their experience in the herringbone dairy.

“We’ve been calving for the past three months. It’s so much easier,” she said.

“You don’t have to put cups on. No-one has bruises from being kicked.

“The training for the heifers takes longer, but it’s better for them and for us.

“Having the feed in front of them when they’re in the stall gives the cows and heifers a reward for being milked. And they like that.”

The biggest challenge the family has at the moment is planning the paddock rotations, especially with many of the cows choosing to be milked three times a day.

“Someone is always rostered on for the dairy, and the rest of us are building new fences and laneways,” Lisa said.

“Our biggest challenge is planning the paddocks feed and making sure the cows get what they need. That’s why we’re building a lot of new fences and tracks.

“Cows that want to milk three times a day will have a new paddock they can go to. That new paddock experience also gives them an incentive to get milked a third time.”

Lisa Vening says she misses seeing her favourite cows every day, because it is now the cow’s choice when she arrives at the dairy shed.

It was easy to transition the herd data from the Jantec system to integrate with the Lely software.

“Every day we have the data on the cows’ health, what they’re milking and how often they’re milking, and if they’re eating properly,” Lisa said.

“If a cow’s milking performance is not what it should be, she can’t hide in the herd.

“We know if a cow is on heat. You can look up how many heats she’s had and when she’s no longer in heat.

“We know from the data on the computer that all the cows are no longer on heat, and they’re calving to the date of their AI.”

In this past year, that data has eliminated the need for their local veterinarian to undertake pregnancy testing in their herd.

After a year of using the robots, the change in milking schedule has enabled more flexibility in the daily work schedule, to focus on tasks like infrastructure maintenance, cropping, pasture management and animal care.

“We’re not all up at 4am milking and having to be there at 3pm for afternoon milking,” Lisa said.

“We don’t have to run around chasing cows and calves.

“If we want to have a bit of personal time we can.”

Although Lisa did say she misses seeing her favourite cows every day, because it is now the cow’s choice when she arrives at the dairy shed.

The Vening family hosted an open day in their robotic dairy in March. For a gallery of photos from the day, go to the Dairy News Australia website at:

Cow comfort at the new dairy shed includes the Lely Luna cow brush.
Rainwater is captured from the roof of the dairy shed and used in the equipment wash.