A robotic dairy

The robotic dairy frees owners and operators to better use their time, with the system accurately managing cows, writes Allan Harman.
Issue Date: 31 October 2008

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The Atsronaut
robotic milker in action.
Lely Holdings NV

After the opening of the world’s first robotic commercial dairy farm, New Zealand dairy cows are practically milking themselves. At Stradbrook farm in the Canterbury region of South Island, the cows are milked any time of the day or night; the Bluetooth strip grazing fences are moved using solar power instead of human power, and robotic gates open and shut according to the needs of the individual cow in front of them.

Even the effluent system, designed by Plucks Engineering, turns itself on and off, sorting fibre from liquid, thereby reducing the environmental impact of effluent. The computer system can even text problems to the farmer. 5am to 5pm guaranteed milking times are gone and cows are treated as individuals, not just a herd.

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Owned and operated by the Carr Agricultural Group, the 80ha farm not only showcases innovative dairy farming solutions, but is also a fully-functioning commercial dairy farm. Carr Agricultural Group’s Winslow Ltd is the Lely Holdings NV agent. Craig Carr, Winslow’s MD, says Stradbrook will milk 280 cows this year and work towards a split calving model to maximise the use of the robots all year round. Peter Vis, Lely New Zealand’s MD, says the Astronaut robotic milkers are kinder to cows than traditional milking machines as they serve their needs rather than the farmer’s time schedule; there are even automatic Luna cow brushes to comfort and massage the cow.

The robot’s collar sensors record the cow’s chewing pattern to determine its health status – often picking up on health issues a lot quicker than some dairy staff. Carr says the robotic system is no more costly than other milking systems, with each machine costing between NZ$250 000 (R1,39 million) and 300 000 (R1,67 million). “Contrary to what the word robotics might make you think, it’s not a hands-off animals approach,” he says. “It simply frees up farmers to choose how to spend their time and reduces the effects of the industry-wide problem of staff shortages.”

Jim Anderton, the New Zealand agriculture minister, says the technology at the farm holds huge potential for farmers to improve performance in areas such as productivity and animal health, and lifestyle opportunities for owners and operators. “New Zealand is also a natural destination for the robotic fence movers, with our pasture-based dairy industry,” he says. “There may also be a market for robotic fence movers in certain beef production systems, for instance, where cattle are fed intensively.” |fw