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Automatic milking popular with early adopters in NZ

25 Sep, 2012

Adoption of automatic milking systems (AMS) is rapidly increasing internationally, and New Zealand farmers are beginning to follow suit.

How automatic milking systems work

An AMS is designed to do all the jobs involved with milking cows without any hands-on input from staff. Also called robotic milking, the AMS is set up to:

  • guide the cows to the milking area
  • identify each cow individually
  • milk the cows
  • check the milk
  • record data about individual cows.

The system is designed to operate 24 hours a day allowing the cows to choose when they want to be milked. Remote monitoring is an essential element of the system, allowing farmers to manage their herds more efficiently and alerting them when there is a technical issue or a problem with a cow.

Adapting automatic milking for New Zealand farm systems

Automatic milking systems are well established in other countries, especially in Europe, where the technology originated. Initially, they were developed for milking small herds of cows that were housed indoors in close proximity to the milking system. Most New Zealand dairy herds are farmed in paddocks and walk some distance to the farm dairy for milking, so is automatic milking an option for New Zealand dairy farms?

DairyNZ set up the Greenfield research farm to investigate this question in 2001.

Their research proved that automatic milking can work successfully in a pasture-based system. Three key findings from the research are fundamental to success on New Zealand farms:

  • Three-way grazing, where three daily allocations of pasture are provided for the cows in separate areas of the farm. This ensures access to fresh pasture for all the cows regardless of when they are milked. Overseas farms predominantly use two-way grazing or just allow cows access to a single large paddock.
  • A drafting system to sort the cows before they enter the AMS. This ensures only cows that are due for milking can enter the machines.
  • A higher output per robot is possible if you milk each cow less often and have more cows per robot.

Get information sheet: Setting up the Greenfield Project’s research farm

AMS now a commercial reality on New Zealand farms

When the Greenfield project was set up in 2001, researchers predicted the first commercial farm to adopt the technology in New Zealand would be established in 2008. In fact, two farms adopted AMS in that year.

By 2012, nine New Zealand farms had adopted AMS, with several more to follow soon. The farms using the technology are spread throughout the country and include a broad range of farming systems, from organic pastoral farms to fully housed systems, and herds ranging from 180–800 cows.

Support networks help generate knowledge

Having proved the concept, the Greenfield farm is no longer in operation. DairyNZ’s focus is now on working with the farmers to develop a greater understanding of the technology and to establish an infrastructure to support them.

DairyNZ facilitates regular discussion groups with the farmers, enabling them to share experiences and learn from one another. This on-going networking is helping to identify and solve issues and generate knowledge and could lead to further research in the future. DairyNZ also has a section on its website to disseminate knowledge to help farmers who are using or considering adopting automatic milking. 

Flexible working day key benefit for farmers

The first farmers to adopt automatic milking in New Zealand have been motivated by various factors, including:

  • more flexible working hours and less labour intensity
  • ease of attracting staff
  • wanting to keep up with new technology
  • looking to the future.

According to a 2008 DairyNZ survey, most New Zealand farm dairies are 20 years old or more. For farmers considering upgrading or replacing their existing facilities in the future, robotic milking offers another option as well as the potential to change the traditional lifestyle of New Zealand farmers.

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