Robot dairy creates new milking era
University’s $2.4 million Dookie milking facility offers fresh farmer challenges
DAIRY farmers may have been excited by the invention of a robotic dairy, putting an end to the loathed 4am milking job, but they didn’t anticipate the phone calls that the robot can make at any time of the day.
According to University of Melbourne’s Robotic Dookie Dairy farm assistant Geoff Wilhelms the robots are “very demanding”.
“The 4am milking is over, that is unless you receive a phone call from the robot sending you a message about something,” Mr Wilhelms said.
“I have to get here just before 7 am because the robot want sone of its filters changed, and then it wants the other changed just after 7am.
“It will send me the message about half an hour before its’ due, so I’ll be driving to work and the robot will ring me to say I have half an hour to change the milk filter.
“Like this morning, the last three cows were coming through and the robot sent me a message to say that the teat spray was getting low and that I had to change the drums.
“If the cleaning detergents get low it sends a message.
“If something serious goes wrong you will get a phone call at 2am to say that the system has crashed.”
Mr Wilhelms is currently running the brand new, $2.4 million state-of-the-art upgraded robotic dairy facility at Dookie which was recently opened by Member for Shepparton, Jeanette Powell.
The Robotic Dookie Dairy facility consists of robotic milking capability, cutting edge solar panel capacity, a milking shed and feeding systems with capacity for 180 cows.
The Robotic Dookie Dairy improvements are a part of a $5 million investment in the university’s Dookie farm, in partnership with Rural Development Victoria – with $2.4 million allocated to the dairy – to ensure the greater Dookie campus remains a leading agricultural educational facility in Victoria.
The Victorian Government has contributed $2.5 million towards the overall project.
The investment is also to support research on optimising animal nutrition, maximising welfare, modifying behavior and stock management and securing water efficiencies in operations.
Dookie campus administration manager Bill O’Connor said that robotics in milking was a new era for the Victorian dairy industry.
“We demolished the previous dairy which was a herringbone and the sheds associated with that and started from scratch,” he said.
“So this is a brand new robotic facility and there are only about 20 operating inAustralia at the moment.
“It’s really cutting edge technology and there are only three in northern Victoria.
Each robot will milk approximately 60 cows per day, but at present the Dookie Dairy only has 38 cows going through the system to allow both staff and the cows to ease into the technology and to “eliminate any of the bugs”.
It is a voluntary milking system, where the cows volunteer themselves up to come into the robots to be milked.
“They are like kids, they are attracted by the food, so they get fed in the bale and they get fresh pasture on the other side of the dairy, so they come to the dairy get fed, go out the other side, get fresh feed, come back, get fed, go out to the other side of the farm, get fed again,” Mr O’Connor said.
“So they just transition backwards and forwards through the dairy and they milk up to two and a half to three times per day, so you get more milk out of them this way.”
The cows have adapted very quickly to the robotic milking, unlike the people who have had to undertake a huge learning curve which has changed the traditional way of milking the herd.
“The cows had it under control in about two weeks, we are taking a little longer,” Mr O’Connor said.
“It is a complete change in mindset on how you milk.
“The advantage of this is that you don’t spend your time actually, physically putting cups on.
“You spend more time looking at the computer and you have more time for other farm activities, like farm management, management of pasture production and animal health and lifestyle-type things.”
MrO’Connoraddedthat part of the reason robotics was making its way into the dairy industry was due to the lack of availability and quality of labor.
“With the technology you actually get indications of health issues earlier than you would with unskilled labor out in the yard, so there are a number of benefits to using technology,” he said.
“One of the things with the robots is that they give a consistent approach the whole time.
“It’s not like when the cows have a different operator milking them each time - it’s the same experience every time for them.
“They know what they are in for and the robots have endless patience, so they just keep trying to put the cups on.
“And the good thing is the students now get exposure to a robotic dairy and they will experience how it works.
While the robotic dairy cuts down on the need for milkers, Mr Wilhelms added that the labor now required needs to be more skilled as the mix of activities that needs to be performed is different.
“You have to be able to handle the robots and the computer system and you have to be able to understand what the computer system tells you because you no longer physically handle the cows,” Mr Wilhelms said.
“Issues such as udder health, like mastitis, are detected by the robots that look at milk quality and detect probably about three days before a human could pick it up.
“The robot will sort out the cows with whatever issues it finds like an udder health problem, whether they are on heat or their ID system has failed and the technician has to come in and work out why the cows have been sorted out and treat the issue once they have identified it.”
There are also more pressures on the farmer in terms of pasture management.
Mr Wilhelms said that if cows were given too much paddock feed they would not be hungry enough to come back up to the dairy.
CUTTING EDGE: Some of the robot-driven milking equipment in the $2.4 million Dookie university dairy.