[This post was first published in the Fairfax NZ Sunday Star Times on 16 November 2014]
Milking cows is far from exciting. People milk cows for money and not for fun. What if it could all be done by robots?
Well, those days have come. Already there are at least 16 New Zealand commercial dairy farms with robot milkers and the number is increasing rapidly. In Scandinavia and the Netherlands in particular, but also elsewhere in Northern Europe, there are now thousands of these robots. They are also coming to America.
Robots are coming to Europe and the US faster than to New Zealand because of differences between their farm systems and ours. On Northern Hemisphere farms, it is typically just a wander down the barn of 50 metres or so for the cow to meet up with a robot. In contrast, on nearly all of our farms the cows graze pastures and it can be a kilometre or more back to the milking shed. For efficiency, each robot needs a steady supply of cows throughout the day and night, and does not want a whole herd turning up at the same time.
Here in New Zealand, Dexcel (now DairyNZ), set up the first NZ robot system in 2001. It was known as the Greenfield Project and ran for seven years. The project was a good learning exercise but overall outcomes did not stack up to commercial criteria.
Since then the technology has advanced and the cost has come down. However, with pasture-based systems it is still a challenge to manage the steady flow of cows to the shed.
A fundamental principle with robot systems is that the cows get a reward for coming in and getting milked. Typically, this includes some concentrate feed which the robot dishes out to them. It is just like offering children an inducement of an ice cream if they will come inside. The other part of the inducement with pasture-based systems is that after milking, the cow is allowed back outside to a new break of fresh grass.
Cows are creatures of habit and most can be trained to robot systems. There are slow learners and fast learners. In general, young cows learn better than old cows.
On pasture-based robot farms there is still much to learn. It is not the robot technology itself, but the overall farm management system which still needs fine tuning.
Accordingly, the current pioneers of robot systems on pasture farms are typically farmers who are motivated by the challenge of making the new system work rather than maximising profit. Instead of spending their leisure time on the golf course, they get their kicks from tweaking the robot farm management system.
In contrast, in Northern Hemisphere barn environments the overall robot systems are well proven. The cows average about three robot milkings per day and the robot often has to tell the cows to go away as it is too soon since the last milking. Under these conditions, robot-milked cows typically reward their human owners by producing more milk than human-milked cows.
The robot also knows precisely when it is time to remove the cups and treats each cow as an individual according to predetermined rules. The robot can also tell if the cow has a fever or an udder infection. And if the cow is ready to be mated, then the robot can draft it to a separate area.
Once milked, the cow wanders back to choose a stall for a lie down, or perhaps wanders over to the feed line for another meal. On the way she may stop for a back scratch using specially located back scratchers.
Robots do not necessarily save a great deal of labour cost, but they do change the type of labour. The robot does all the boring jobs, leaving the farmer to be the supervisor. Sometimes a robot and a cow will have a disagreement in the middle of the night and the robot will come off second best and do a sulk. So on occasions farmers do have to get up in the middle of the night.
Robot technology is one of the reasons that an increasing number of New Zealand farmers are also moving to open plan free-stall barns. Many would say that as a financial investment, the barn-based robot system is still unproven under New Zealand conditions. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there are indeed situations where free-stall barns and robots can be a profitable investment which creates a different lifestyle for both the farmer and the cow.
Here in New Zealand, none of the universities or research institutions has dairy robots on their farms. However, within our Farm Management Group at Lincoln we currently have two postgraduates who are case studying robot dairy farms. As so often when it comes to farm innovation, it is farmers who are at the forefront and the rest of us are learning from them.