Lifestyle decisions are behind some dairy farmers decision to adopt technology. Automating workflow and reducing jobs on the farm also reduces workforce requirements.
Reducing emissions is yet another reason, as agriculture is increasingly expected to measure and reduce its emissions and make tangible environmental contributions to help Australia meet its recently announced 2050 net-zero emissions commitment.
Automated milking systems (AMS) are becoming more common in Australia, as farmers look for a calmer form of dairy farming, for animals and humans - and therefore a more sustainable way of working.
It also provides accurate production data, measures cell count and can be modified per cow to match grain feeding to production capacity. In addition, if a cow is being treated with, for example, antibiotics, so long as it is identified correctly on the system it ensures the milk bypasses the vat.
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Robotic dairy lifestyle decision
Alastair Steel bought a 28-bale rotary platform dairy at Orbost 16 years ago and installed a four-bale AMS system in late January 2021. While installing the AMS system was a lifestyle decision - Mr Steel can go surfing in the morning, the main reason for moving to Orbost - it requires less labour to operate and reduces some of the standard dairy emissions. He estimates milk production is up seven per cent and says the system is most effective when used optimally.
"The rotary dairy was 40 years old and needing repairs every week," Mr Steel said.
"When I looked at replacing it, a new rotary dairy was a similar price to a four-bale robot dairy. And I was able to reduce costs by installing it in a new shed near the stockyards where there's already a concrete floor.
"I get phone alerts and can log in to the system and check if it's something I need to deal with now or later. I'm hardly ever in the dairy.
"My focus now is looking at reports on the cows rather than being in the dairy. I check their health reports daily - rumination, production, how often they've been milked, how much they've eaten. If a cow doesn't eat all her grain portion, the software remembers so she gets the rest of it when she returns for her next milking.
"I can install information so the system recognises a cow has three teats and won't milk, for example, the right front quadrant.
"I get an alert when the grain level in the silo falls to 3.5 tonnes.
"There's a lot of scope for using data, but I probably don't use it as optimum. I'm still learning."
Applying a risk management lens to operation, when grid power drops or goes above a certain level, the AMS system is also connected to a generator that kicks in. But he is considering installing solar power to reduce electricity costs and emissions.
"We're still to measure electricity use - I'm waiting for a year's production before crunching the data and comparing the numbers to previous years - but because we're milking through the day, we're looking to move to solar power," he said.
"I'm already using less water and less detergent."
Mr Steel said he felt he had more time to do the jobs around the farm - repairing fences, fertilising and oversowing pastures, feeding silage to the herd.
"It happens when I feel like doing it, rather than dictated by the pressure of time between milking," Mr Steel said.
Better for family life
His view is endorsed by Sheriden Williams who, with husband Evan, installed a four-bale AMS a few years ago.
Installed into a purpose-built shed at Yannathan, Vic, it has since been upgraded to six bales.
This farm reflects a growing trend in Europe to adopt AMS, where production drives efficiency gains.
According to insights about drivers of performance, published in the Trend Report - European dairy industry, produced by A Insights, increasing production provides dairy farms with the resilience to cope better with milk price dynamics.
Increasing production and size - and AMS is one of the infrastructure measures - increases a dairy business's sustainability.
"Our old dairy was stuffed and another rotary dairy would've cost about the same as installing a robot dairy system," Mrs Williams said.
"Evan and I were tired and [daughter] Georgi and [son-in-law] Graeme [with their young children] had started working for us. We decided a robot dairy was better on health, family life and meant none of us was tied down to a time for milking. We share the responsibilities of going over to the dairy and checking how it's operating."
There are also animal welfare considerations.
"Cows choose when they want to be milked," Mrs Williams said.
"Even if we get a phone alert, we don't rush to the dairy. If one of the bays stops working, we still have five bales milking cows.
"We upgraded to six bales because we wanted enough time for a cow to take her time and stay in the box to finish her feed."
The system milks 300 cows in a high producing herd. Mrs Williams said they plan to increase to 320 head.
"We're still averaging 36 litres/cow, or 9500 litres/cow/year," she said.
"The system allows those cows who want to milk more than twice a day to come into a bale, or choose to milk themselves three times in two days.
"I like to think my cows are happy and I'm keeping them healthy and I love to see them coming up to choose when to be milked. I think it's the future, if you can handle technology."
Grain is fed per cow according to her production status.
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Automatic cup removers
Automatic cup removers are standard in many dairies, and some farmers say it removes one person from the milking rota.
"The first thing we did when we started in the dairy industry 16 years ago was get quotes to install automatic cup removers," Mr Steel said.
"It was the first bit of technology we installed, and it realised one less worker in the dairy."
For Mr Steel, that 'one less worker' was himself.
"I employed someone to milk 10 days in a fortnight, and I picked up the other four days," he said.
Since installing the AMS, however, he doesn't miss this part of the job.
"The robots have done 120,000 milkings and I haven't had to put 400,000 cups on this year," Mr Steel said.
He was quick to adopt an automatic calf feeding system when he moved to Orbost.
"I was carrying 40 litres of milk from the vat to the calf shed twice a day. I couldn't pump it because the ageing pipe infrastructure curdled the milk," Mr Steel said.
Fourteen years ago he purchased a second-hand automatic calf feeder with four stations and installed it in an existing shed with a concrete floor. The calves drink powdered milk mixed at the source.
Geographically he is distant from service providers so relies on his expertise to understand technicians instructions to identify and repair faults.
"Unless it's absolutely essential, service and maintenance can be done over the phone," Mr Steel said.
Automation is far more widespread than AMS dairies though.
Often hand-in-hand with AMS, but also used separately, heat-detection collars provide data collection that farmers rely on.
Mr Steel has collars on his Friesian-cross cows and relies on the system.
"I decided if I invest in this technology, I'm going to trust the system," he said.
But technology fails and becomes outdated, so investing in upgrades is essential.
Early adopters of the technology, Benam Vic, dairy farmers Toby and Nick Leppin have used collars on their cows to identify heat cycles.
They eliminated bulls from their system, relying exclusively on artificial insemination for joining.
This season they stopped using the collars.
Faced with needing to replace batteries and upgrade the hardware, and supply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, they chose to rely on their skills as dairy farmers.
"It's not the collars generally. We think the technology fails because it's out of date," Nick Leppin said.
"They also start breaking down because they get water affected. It can't be helped in the dairy.
"You go to the next model and get some different features, but it costs a lot more to upgrade."
This year, the old heat detection collars indicated heat cycles, which obviously weren't true, wasting a semen straw.
"You still need to look visually," Mr Leppin said.
"We had cows calving four to six weeks early, because the heat detection collar picked them up six weeks after their first AI.
"It's a waste of money and management time. Technology gets outdated very quickly."
Mr Leppin also uses electric fences across the farm to graze the herd.
This includes timers that release the gate at milking time, meaning humans don't have to bring the herd in - rather, the cows make their own way to the dairy.
Automatic irrigation systems
Also in the farm paddocks, automated irrigation systems can release labour units.
The Macalister Irrigation District, the largest irrigation district in southern Victoria, has been undergoing modernisation, including installing automated sluice gates that open according to pre-determined times.
For Leo van den Broek, it has meant sleeping through the night.
Prior to automation, he had to be up during the night to manually open sluice gates to flood irrigate his pastures.
Modernisation has also seen increased investment in pipe-and-riser systems and centre pivots in the MID.
Frances Gannon, at Tinamba, Vic, invested in centre pivots, fixed sprinklers and pipe-and-riser systems to replace flood irrigation on his dairy farm, after the channel system was modernised. Automating the system delivers more efficient water supply.
"It's massively reduced the workload," Mr Gannon said.
"It makes a big difference to your lifestyle and your family's lifestyle. And you'll ultimately use less water."
For Brad White, also at Tinamba, automated irrigation immediately reduced one labour unit which would otherwise be employed shifting irrigation assets and opening sluice gates.
Global positioning systems
Labour efficiency can be further enhanced with the use of Global Positioning System artificial intelligence 'driving' tractors.
Precision agriculture software systems gather data about pH and soil tests that is uploaded to algorithms on iPads connected to modern tractors, so fertiliser and lime is spread across paddocks at correct rates and according to where it is needed. It saves time and money for farmers.
Other adaptions already in use are drones to gather data to calculate pasture volume or dispense weed spray.
Beneficial insects can be dispersed into a crop using a drone, rather than using insecticide, reducing the risk of cows grazing sprayed crops and producing contaminated milk.
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