NEW technology is changing the face of dairy farming as we know it, with an increasing number of local farmers turning to automation to lighten the labour load.
Several displays at the recent South Gippsland Dairy Expo showcased machinery designed to automate dairy farming practices such as calf feeding, milk metering, heat detection, drafting and teat spraying.
According to ADF Milking’s Technical Sales Manager and engineer Craig Kelly, on site at the expo to spruik automated dipping and flushing equipment, such technology has been widely used across Europe for the past ten years, and is now starting to catch on in Australia, with farmers realising the benefits including increased efficiency and accuracy.
“Rather than having everything done by labour, automation is more reliably consistent,” said Mr Kelly. “It saves a person doing something manually 500 times a day, and it can make the working environment safer.
“For example, a person spraying teats will naturally miss some of the time, and that can create a safety hazard. But with a machine doing those sorts of jobs, there’s no need for people to come into contact with chemicals.”
Mr Kelly said automation was “not about getting rid of jobs for people” but about “creating better jobs for people and utilising labour in a better way”.
He said interest in automated systems was growing among South Gippsland farmers, although issues around milk and feed prices, dry conditions and lingering effects of the Murray Goulburn crisis meant most were cautious about making major changes to existing dairy operations.
Hallora dairy farmer Grant Williams was one farmer not afraid to dive in to the automation boom.
Grant installed an automated milking system in 2009, hoping to lessen his farm’s reliance on hired labourers.
His robotic dairy operates around the clock, milking 250 cows trained to enter and exit the milking shed on a voluntary basis.
Grant said the investment of around $200,000 had been worth it, and he had enjoyed the process of becoming familiar with the technology.
“There is obviously a cost attached but if you compare the benefits… If you put the latest tech into a conventional, existing dairy, or if you were looking at building a new rotary, it’s very close to the same amount of money.
“The difference is, it’s getting more and more difficult to find relief milkers, and with a robotic dairy, the cows essentially milk themselves.
“It’s been really pleasing, watching high producing cows bail through and milk themselves. They actually seem to enjoy it. They’re very relaxed. I can be hosing the yard and they’ll just walk straight past like they don’t even notice me. They’re just on a mission to get to the robot.”
But automated systems don’t come without their own set of challenges, Grant said, acknowledging that some farmers may be reluctant to change the way things have been done in dairies for so many years.
“Training the cows to milk themselves is the tricky part. They do adjust well but they can take a while to train to use a voluntary system.
“So, it doesn’t suit everybody. Some people won’t be comfortable with cows walking up and down the lane all day and night; some people don’t like technology.”
With that technology, operating 24/7, comes the risk of breakdowns, and higher energy costs, which have prompted Grant to consider investing in solar power. It also means finding a skilled worker to monitor the robotic dairy if you want to take time off.
But the most important thing for farmers to be aware of when considering investing in automated systems, Grant said, was that they “won’t take away your work”.
“It may change your lifestyle, but you’ve still got to work. You still have to look after the cows, grow grass, fertilise, do fencing. I still have to come up to the milking shed twice a day, but it’s more flexible in terms of the timing. So, I’m still working just as hard but it’s a different type of work.”
Just down the road from Grant’s farm, Lindsay Anderson has also installed a robotic dairy, and like Grant, has been pleased with the results.
Installed in 2012, Lindsay’s robots allowed him to cut down hired workers from five to one.
“Milking’s all about consistency, and information, but as soon as you get people involved, there’s always going to be something different. If something’s not quite right and your worker doesn’t pass that information on, that can lead to bigger problems.
“There’s always going to be a role for good, reliable workers but we’ve all had sorts of problems with workers ringing in sick, not showing up, making mistakes. Whereas the robots do exactly the same every time and they operate 20 plus hours a day, every day. They don’t care if it’s wet, raining and miserable.
“It removes the mundane jobs and the inefficiencies. And it means I’m not tied to the shed.
“I’ve done overseas trips and left my [teenage] son in charge of the farm. Because I can still monitor the robots from overseas and it will send me messages if anything’s wrong.”
Lindsay said if he was building a new milking shed, he “wouldn’t do it any other way”.
“If you’re up for building a new rotary or a new herringbone, you’ve got to be considering it [a robotic system].
“It’s a long-term investment but it’s a worker you don’t need; it’s machinery that basically looks after itself.”
But, he said, farmers have to be prepared to invest the time into learning how to make the most of the technology and all the data it collects.
“It’s not for everyone. You do need to have a certain attitude and a certain drive,” he said.
Krowera dairy farmer Andy Thomas is one of many local farmers to implement automated technology on a smaller scale.
Andy’s been using automatic cup removers for a number of years, and having been impressed by a visit to Grant’s Hallora farm, said he would consider going further to automate his dairy.
“Technology’s catching up with everything, and if it means there’s less time required to do it, and it makes farming easier, it has to be a good thing, especially because labour’s so expensive and can be hard to find.”
Andy said cost was the main thing preventing more farmers from going down the automation route, and there could also be a generational divide.
“You’ve got to get the right machinery for your enterprise, and you’ve have the money to set it up and put it together.
“The older generation’s more reluctant to try new things because they haven’t got many years to go in the industry; they don’t want to invest if they’re not going to be around to see the returns.
“The younger ones are all for new technology but they’re the ones who can’t afford it- it’s a bit of a catch 22.”