A Big Barn Approach to Dairying

April 2016

A look at one of the world’s largest robotic dairy barns owned and operated by a farming family that are pioneering indoor dairy farming in New Zealand.

Adriaan and Wilma Van Leeuwen have a long history in the industry. Wilma was a 2015 finalist in Dairy Woman of the Year. She grew up on a Waikato farm and started her dairying career with Aad in a sharemilking operation near Matamata in the 1980s.

The couple made their move south in 1993. They began a contracting business in 1996 to complement their farming operation and also because there was a shortage of contractors in general in the area at the time. The family business now milks more than 12,000 cows on 12 dairy farms and started introducing large-scale robotic milking seven years ago. The Makikihi property is 600ha and all cows are housed.

The couple has six children, four of whom are now working in the dairy industry while the other two are studying agriculture at Lincoln.

The farm had potential for dairying but had been designated as part of Environment Canterbury’s at risk zones for water quality. A requirement of establishing a dairy farm operation was being able to prove that it would be run sustainably. 

The barn is the third indoor robotic housing system built by the van Leeuwens but the largest they’ve ever tackled. It took 12 months to build.  It’s roughly 13,000 sq m - 193m long and 67m wide. The floor has a rubber covering and each animal has a individual stall with foam matting. 

The conversion was completed in September 2014 at an investment in excess of $20 million. 

On the property they have also built three new houses, two effluent tanks, one for undiluted effluent and one for diluted effluent as well as concrete feed bunkers that can store 4.5m kgDM. They have also installed a grain feeding system to the milking robots. 

Cows were introduced to the barn from September, starting with 700 and building up to 1150. At full capacity it will fit 1500 cows under one roof.

Milk production is expected to top 800kgMS/cow within five years or 1,200,000 kgms. 

The barn is set up in two halves – an early lactation side and a late lactation side. Cows coming in will spend 100-140 milking days in the early lactation side; the length of stay will depend on when they calve and milk yield. 

Cows need to be trained to voluntarily enter the milking stall to be milked by one of 24 DeLaval robots. They are lured in with meal pellets. The robots do the rest –the hydraulic arms clean the teats, milk the cow and then clean up after each animal. 

The milking machines can be controlled via a touch screen – and can be remotely operated if necessary. ID on each cow collects data on yield, length of time between milking and health. On average Adriaan van Leeuwen says cows are being milked 2.6 times per 24 hour period.

As the cows enter the milking box, the computer immediately starts accumulating information, such as the last time the cow visited, its health and it can monitor milk production from each quarter of the udder as well as individual cow activity for heat detection.

After milking cows go back to the barn or are separated off if there’s any requirement for treatment. Colostrum milk and milk from cows being treated with penicillin is directed away from the main milk lines.

The barn has several unique features, including the milk transport system. The technicians came up with eight lines, split into four areas on each side of the barn.

Another feature is the centralised chemical line. Because of the sheer volume of robots needing chemical (acid, alkaline and teat spray) to operate and clean, the chemical goes straight to the robot.

The computer network was also tailored to meet the needs of the van Leeuwens, with two PCs installed for 24 robots.

Access to information from the milking robots is available remotely - as is footage from the cameras scattered in and outside the barn.

The Van Leeuwens are also looking at DeLaval technology which tests milk for signs of mastitis, ketosis and whether the cow is coming on heat. 

There are a number of feed lanes where a mixture of maize, lucerne and grass silage is fed out.

Effluent is removed by scrapers and stored in a tank outside the barn – for later use back on crops. The tank is able to store half a year’s worth of effluent. 

The cows spend 10 months of the year inside. When they’re not lactating they are outside.

The effluent is used as base fertiliser for the feed crops surrounding the shed, a 28,000L slurry tanker applying it by dribble-bar or injector. The injection system means the effluent is being buried in the soil so there’s no loss of nutrient to the air. The dribble-bar spreader is used on existing grassland and Lucerne.

Nearly all the feed is home-grown, cut and carried off the surrounding 600ha. The Van Leeuwens grow 200ha of maize, 60 ha of grass and 370 ha of lucerne for this barn. 

Because everything is fed out in the barn the feed can be managed extremely effectively. The content of the silage stack is tested and fed out a targeted basis to give cows exactly what is required for good production and cow health. There’s also little or no wastage – all feed is utilised.

The family operates their own contracting business with all the necessary equipment and machinery, meaning crop harvesting costs can be done in-house. 

Because the barn is capturing effluent and reusing it in a controlled way the farm operates well under N leaching caps that many conventional dairy farms are facing under Regional Council rules. 

The Van Leeuwen’s Makihihi barn supplies Oceania Dairy, a new dairy plant operating in South Canterbury. Oceania is a subsidiary of the Chinese owned Yili Industrial Group. Construction began at the Glenavy site in April 2013 and the first stage was opened in November 2014. 

The Van Leeuwens were founding shareholders of Oceania Dairy business prior to its sale to Yili. 

In September 2015 it was announced that suppliers to Oceania will be receiving a promised minimum of $4.50 kg m/s for the 2015/16 season. 

The Van Leeuwens say the drive to build a robotically managed indoor system for their cows was driven by the premium paid for winter milking and a shortage of skilled staff. At present there are 11 staff working on the property. 

The system allows optimal feed management, good cow comfort and access to herd information that makes farm decision making better informed.

Another benefit of the barn and keeping animals inside is animal health. Lameness is non-existent as cows don’t have to walk to and from paddocks for milking.

Robotic milking allows them to reduce labour costs and does away with the need to milk cows twice a day.

Structurally the barn has a 12M high pitched roof designed to allow for good ventilation. The sides are mesh.