THE installation of a data-rich robotic milking system is providing herd health, decision-making and lifestyle benefits for Mil-Lel, South Australia, dairy farming family Josh, Sam and Natalie Clark.
Six Lely Astronaut A5 milking robots were installed in November 2018 and feed a wealth of usable data into the Lely Time for Cows management system, which provides the Clark family with real-time individualised information on cow weight, milking production and milk quality.
The dairy is run under a voluntary milking and ABC grazing system, whereby the cows decide when it is time to be milked and are then automatically drafted off onto a different grazing block.
The 350-head Friesian herd generally saunter in from the irrigated ryegrass and clover pastures twice a day and enter the Astronaut robots, where they receive a ration of grain to eat while being milked.
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Lasers and a 3D camera help the robot's arm locate the cow's teats and connect suction cups. Each robot pumps 1666 litres a day into vats, with the milk delivered to Saputo. The cow herd averages 2.1 milkings a day and 26L of milk per day per cow.
Once a pen and paper operation, the only information the Clarks have to physically log into the computer-based Time for Cows management system are vaccines, health treatments and artificial inseminations.
"Every time a cow goes into the robot to get milked, we'll get what they're doing per day, weight, and get milk quality to the quarter level," Josh said. "We get a cell count each milking and the system picks up if there's blood in the milk and won't send that to the vat.
"Having quick access to that lifetime data is incredible. In our old system, most information was handwritten and visually seen."
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Josh said the system came into its own when picking up on cow illness and when cows were on heat, eliminating the need for time-consuming pregnancy-testing and six-weekly whole of herd performance testing.
"Activity monitoring can tell us when the cow is either sick or on heat and we run our AI system off that," he said.
"This system shows when a cow's rumination drops and activity picks up, working out it's on heat and automatically drafts those into the yards for us to AI after some further checks and balances."
Milking-by-milking data also helps identify poor performers earlier, improving herd and breeding decisions.
"We used to do herd testing every five to six weeks, giving us a snapshot of what each cow was doing within that period," Josh said.
"With this system, we're getting more data from every milking than from that six-weekly snapshot."
Lifestyle benefits an added incentive
WHILE dairyfarmers Josh, Sam and Natalie Clark have noticed improved herd health, particularly feet, due to their new system being voluntary, perhaps the biggest change has been in the family's lifestyle.
For one worker in their old milking shed during a peak time, 10 hours would be dedicated to just the milking process. Josh estimates that would only be 3.5 hours under the new system.
It was routine for the brothers to work 14-hour days.
"Morning work hasn't changed too much, but we used to get home at 7-8 at night after milking, now we're finishing work at 5. We have more time to do other farm tasks like helping Mum (Natalie) with the calves, but the lifestyle change has also been a massive benefit, with both me and my brother having young families."
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