Reid Robotic Dairying

July 2015

Alvin Reid says robotics is providing a welcome change to his dairy operation

Dairy farmers Alvin and Judith Reid started out dairying as sharemilkers in 1978 on the Taieri Plains near Mosgiel. Only three years later they bought their first dairy farm, a 54ha block at Winchester in South Canterbury, which they still milk on. Since then they have farmed all their cows conventionally, expanding their farming business.

They bought a drystock property at Pleasant Point in 2000, and used it as a runoff and for grazing young stock.

“I was on the Dexcel board for four years and we were doing greenfield trials in Hamilton to see if cows would move voluntarily from pasture to be milked by a robot. The trial, over five or six years was successful,’ says Alvin.

“Judith and I decided to convert the farm at Pleasant Point and decided we would look at robots. In 33 years of dairying it’s the most interesting, stimulating and challenging dairy project I have done. I’ve done three conversions and a couple of other cowsheds. It’s just been fascinating.”

“The farm at Pleasant Point has a 125ha milking platform, and we have 485 spring calving cows this year. We have six DeLaval robots milking 80 to 85 cows each.”

These were the first DeLaval robots installed in the South Island and Alvin says the company’s technical support was superb. “The local people we have dealt with are great.”

“I wanted to put the robots in a circle. We built rotary sheds with a 15 to 20 metre backing gate, and this one has a six metre backing gate.” Robots all around the world are set in straight lines, and this was the first in a circle, he says.

At the time of the conversion, it took them seven months to get consent from the Canterbury Regional Council because it was at the same time as the new Land and Water Regional Plan was introduced. This created massive change and took time to negotiate through.

“We wanted to start milking on 1 August 2013, but we only started pouring concrete on 27 July 2013.”

The 400 cows they were meant to be milking were milked at Alvin and Judith’s son and daughter-in-law’s farm for three months.

The new shed was finished in early November and the cows arrived progressively over two weeks from 8 November.

“We were told that it was harder to change the farmer than the cows, and they were right about that. The cow is quite remarkable. Within a week, we saw cows coming out of the paddock to the shed by themselves. Now sometimes we have 100 cows standing at the gate waiting to be milked at 8.30am. They stand quietly waiting for a milking permission.”

“We give them a milking permission every eight hours. On average they are milked 1.9 – 2 times a day with an eight hour milking permission. If they come up to the yard after eight hours are up, their eartag is scanned and they are let in to milk. Otherwise they are sent back to where they were before. If it is time for them to go to a new paddock, they walk on to the new paddock.

The farm is divided into three equal sized blocks with 15 paddocks in each block. Within one 24 hour period, the cows can graze in all three blocks. Cows arriving at the gate at 3pm in the afternoon are sent to A block, at 9pm at night to C block and at 8am in the morning to B block.

Some of the cows only go to two blocks a day. “We have purposely not gone to fetch individual cows from paddocks. Some cows have probably turned themselves into once a day cows.”

Block C is grazed from 9pm at night to 8am the next morning. “We will clear that block at 3-4pm, because we need to make sure it is empty and set up for 9pm.   What drives the system is the three feeds of grass a day. We set up each paddock as normal, with the gate open, a break halfway down the paddock, and the next day the other half of the paddock is opened up for the cows.”

The drafting gates, which are right beside the shed, are programmed to draft cows into the three different blocks.

The resource consent for the farm has a nitrogen limit, so they put meal into the cow’s diet to try and lower nitrate leaching.

Alvin says the farm is all about running things remotely.

“The first day we milked 150 cows, starting at 5am in the morning and we finished at midnight.

At first the robot has to be educated to each cow, and has to be guided to each of the cow’s teats for milking. Afterwards, they can be auto-cupped.

About 75% of the cows were cupped straight away like that, and the next day only 10% of the cows had to be helped. “I didn’t see any cows thrash the robots to bits.”

And it only took two or three days to get the cows walking through the one-way gates onto the three-way grazing system. “The cows have to walk up to a gate, their ear tag is read, and it directs them which way to go.”

For the first six or seven weeks Alvin slept at the cowshed at night to make sure everything went smoothly. “DeLaval said that for the first 10 days they would prefer if we had someone at the shed for 24 hours a day.”

“If the cows don’t have walking permission they will be drafted to a new block to graze. After three or four hours udder pressure drives them back to the shed for milking. At the moment we are not getting many cows coming in from 1-5am, because we are a bit short of feed with a drought.”

At any time there will be cows walking down the race to be milked or going out to fresh feed, and other cows walking back.

The cows have become extremely quiet.

There is a lot of time spent at the computer. “We have two 50inch TVs running off the computer and a 28inch screen. One shows the cameras, one software and one general stuff. A 360deg camera on the top of the shed captures information from all but two paddocks,” Alvin says.

“Manager Rhys Grant and I will think about how we can outsmart the cows. The cows wanted to go onto fresh pasture, and would go through the gates early, so we decided not to shift the break so they didn’t get the fresh break too early. Within a week or 10 days the cows didn’t come up to the gate early.”

There are rules around the gates and the key is to keep cow flow moving. If all the cows get packed in, the system grinds to a stand still.

The cows have free access to the cow yard, the drafting system and the paddock all day. The longest they have to walk is 1km.

Alvin says, “The system does give you lots of information about each cow, but all we are interested in is the exceptions. If something changes about a cow we want to know quickly. For example there is a mastitis report, and we want to see the exceptions coming from that. Every morning there might be eight cows above a certain level, so we put a trap on them. Those cows will come out of the robot and we are sent a text to say cow #94 is trapped. She will stand there in a pen for 10 minutes until someone gets there to look at her. If we don’t get there within 10 minutes she is let out. Every cow we have treated has come from that exception list.”

“There are lots of benefits: you just have to forget everything you know about conventional farming. Everything is different. It is a totally different atmosphere. The cow is a different animal, she is so quiet. They are producing well because of the reduced stress on them. That is what is going to drive the profitability.”

“As long as we get them in calf, these cows will last at least a lactation longer, and that will drive profitability on the farm.”

There are only a few cows which are not perfect robot cows. Only seven or eight have been sent back to the family’s rotary shed.

“After only two or three months I decided I wouldn’t go back to conventional systems, but I didn’t tell anyone. Then Judith came and said to me that we wouldn’t do another conventional dairy farm.”

“I am on the board of the Livestock Improvement Corporation, LIC. I call this farm the Lifestyle Improvement Camp for Cows. We just don’t see lame cows. They walk at their own pace in single file, and there are no motorbikes hurrying them up.”

At night the system sends text alerts, and in the past year Alvin, who monitors the night-time activity, has only had to ring Rhys three times to come down to the shed. A couple of times it’s been because of human error.

The new system has attracted an enormous amount of interest, with thousands of people coming to see it in operation. This past week has seen a Rotary group, 100 people in the local discussion group, the board of Dairy Farmers America, the Livestock Improvement shareholder council and another group from LIC.

Rhys says everything is different about running this farm compared to a conventional farm except that you get milk from the cows. “The cows pretty much milk themselves once they have been taught, which frees up your day to do other things. There is not so much of a routine. If I sleep in, the cows will still come in and get milked.”

“The cows are a lot more relaxed and animal health is better. There is less lameness and mastitis. They are under less stress. They are not getting pushed around in a big mob. We very rarely have to go and fetch them for milking. They flow fairly well. It is amazing just watching the cows and seeing how relaxed and settled they are compared to those in a conventional shed. A happier cow has to produce more milk.’

Since the farm has been converted to the robotic milking system Rhys has increased his computer skills. “I wasn’t that confident with them but Alvin has been very patient. He is very knowledgeable.”

This year Rhys has also taken over the running of the support block only 10 minutes down the road where the young stock are grazed and where the cows are wintered off from May to the start of calving on August 5.

He says pasture management needs a lot of work. Because the farm is a recent conversion not all the pastures have been replaced yet.  “With pasture management you have to be a lot more flexible in how you feed them. There are no guarantees how many cows will go to each break.”

“At the start it seemed like there were cows everywhere, but it becomes natural after a while. You just have to learn to be a bit more forward thinking and make sure things are set up all the time, and that the right gates are always open. You can’t afford to leave the wrong gates open.”