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Cows relax in the ‘Rolls Royce’ of milking sheds

Jeanette Mahan watches a Lely robot milk a cow at the Camelot Robotic Dairy Farm open day.

Photo Kirsty Graham

A relaxed herd of curious cows greeted visitors to a large-scale robotic dairy grazing farm near Mayfield on Tuesday.

Camelot Robotic Farm, which went live in July, was officially opened, and the gates were open for industry representatives, farmers and interested members of the public to see the state-of-the-art equipment in operation.

The farm milks more than 500 cows through eight A4 Lely Astronaut robotic machines, in a year-round operation.

Owned by the Beeston family partnership, consisting of Bryan and Annette and their daughter Frances, the property milks up to 580 “super cows” bred to produce up to 60 litres of milk in 24 hours. The robotic system gives the cows the option of milking up to four times a day.

With the emphasis on producing high quality milk, operating a sustainable business is also a priority for the Beestons.

“For top production the cows need to be happy in their environment,” Camelot manager Frances Beeston said.

Across the board each cow averages 2.5 milkings in 24 hours, accounting for those drying off.

Laser sensors direct the cups to each teat, and drop off as each quarter is empty, preventing injury from over milking.

Once out of the robot the cows congregate in a loafing area, where straw and water is on offer, before they head back to fresh pasture.

Each animal’s movements are tracked via a microchipped collar, and milking information is displayed on a monitor and recorded for health records.

Six months into the routine the cows are well adjusted to the robots, and were not concerned by the people congregated to watch them go through the shed.

Guests at the open day also visited the calf-raising sheds and other areas of the farm.

- Michelle Nelson

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Five star treatment for Camelot cows

By Michelle Nelson

6:00 AM Thursday Feb 21, 2013

In the shadow of the Mid Canterbury foothills lies a modern-day Camelot, where something magical is happening - huge super cows are milked by robots, and a dedicated team of humans attends to their every need.

Camelot Robotic Dairy Farm is owned by the Beeston family's Blumoon Trust, and is a place where animal welfare and sustainable farming practices are kept at the forefront of decision making.

At 26, Frances Beeston manages the state-of-the-art robotic dairy farm, home to the Blumoon Holstein Fresian and Triann Brown Swiss studs. She says life doesn't get much better.

The daughter of Bryan and Annette Beeston, Frances grew up with elite dairy cows, and wasted little time thinking about where her future lay.

"I worked on the farm with Mum and Dad when I was a kid. I had pet calves and loved going out at night to check on cows at calving - I always loved the lifestyle," she says.

While Frances briefly considered a career as a vet or a farm consultant, she was aware such occupations were bound to clash with her values.

"My way of farming is not conventional - I need to try to help an animal, whatever it takes.

"I don't think I could cope with farmers deciding to put animals down rather than treat them.

"If I'm not satisfied with a diagnosis I'll get a second opinion, I'll try homoeopathic or any other alternative therapies.

"If something happens to one of the cows I consider it's my fault - and I don't think any life is worth more than another.

"If a cow is paralysed after delivering a really big calf, then that is my fault for mating them with a bull that was too big, or maybe over-feeding them, so I want to give them every option to survive."

An example of her commitment: when a Camelot cow was injured while adjusting to the newly-opened robotic system, it benefited from hydrotherapy at a neighbouring robotic farm - and a seed was sown. Soon, a second-hand cow-bath was established by the calf shed.

"They soak in warm water for a few of hours at a time. The water supports them and their circulation improves without having to be hung up by the hips.

"The water is emptied gradually and they slowly take their own weight."

During the spring, five cows - one from Camelot and four from nearby farms - were in hydrotherapy.

The move to robotic milking was also motivated by Frances' concern for the welfare of her herd, which contains some of the country's top milk producers.

She spent months working on robotic farms in New Zealand and in Australia, looking for design ideas, learning about routines and figuring out what would work best on Camelot, before construction began.

"I love the cows. The better you breed them and the better you feed them, the better they do.

"I'm always trying to improve the line - to breed better animals with better feet and better udders.

"Having spent money to breed better animals and fed and grown them to their potential, you want to make sure they milk to their potential.

"My cows are half as big again as normal cows, and they produce twice as much milk.

"Robotic milking allows the animal to take pressure off the udder when it needs to, and as the robots milk each quarter separately, dropping off when dry, the risk of infections and harm caused by over-milking is minimalised.

Giving the cows the option of milking when they choose makes perfect sense. Recently calved cows, milking up to 60 litres, might use the robots four times in a 24 hour period, whereas those about to dry off cut themselves back to once-a-day milking.

Handing the decision over to the cows alleviates the need to run separate herds and reduces stress on the animal.

Adjusting to the robots took the herd about three months.

Accustomed to functioning as a herd, the cows had to learn to act independently and to push open the gates, activated by a microchip on their a collar, before moving into the robot.

"At the start, whenever one cow moved toward the shed, the rest followed - because they expected someone would be behind them driving them up," Frances said.

The unfamiliar sensation of the automatic teat scrubbers and robotic arms moving underneath to attach the cups also took time for some animals to adjust to.

"When we first started we had a lot more maintenance work because the cows were more likely to kick, but they've settled down now.

"Frances says cows are clever animals, and food is the secret to ensuring their co-operation.

"Each time a cow comes to the shed, she is rewarded. She gets food in the robot, and goes out on to fresh pasture - it doesn't take long to work out that's a good choice.

"The result, according to Frances, is that the cows are more content, quieter and friendlier.

"It's nice when the cows come up for a lick and a scratch - it shows they trust you.

"On average, the Camelot cows calve every 18 months.

"Some milk for 600 days. We had one in milk for over 1000 days.

"When you demand a lot from them it can take longer for them to get back in calf. They need time to recover from birthing and settle back down - there's no rush to get them in calf, we don't chop their heads off if they don't get in calf straight away, it doesn't work like that here.

"Robotic milking systems have been touted as less labour-intensive than conventional sheds, but this isn't the case on Camelot.

"I don't believe it requires less staff, but it does require higher-quality staff. Because the cows aren't coming in as a herd it's not as easy to spot one that's off colour, you don't see the lame cows at the back of the herd when you're not driving them in.

"I employ people who can read animals, who know when they are in pain or sore - they notice when something's wrong. The sooner you get on to an animal health problem, the quicker it's fixed.

"They don't injure themselves deliberately and, if they kick, it's because they are frightened - I have no tolerance for people who are cruel to animals.

"A recently constructed feed pad will make winter easier this year, able to feed 140 cows at a time, clear of the mud.

"It will save the pasture and it's easier on the cows. The bigger the cow, the deeper it sinks into the mud.

"The herd is 580 strong and will grow to 600 in the next year, but that is the limit the shed can cope with.

- Hamilton News

Cows of the Round Table

Anne Lee 10 months ago

Bryan Beeston and daughter Frances haven’t found the boundaries yet of what cows can do in the robotic system where grazing is still a priority.

Robots and fairytales don’t usually go together, but as Anne Lee discovered, the robotic dairy at Camelot Farm in mid-Canterbury regards itself as a magical place. She talked to farmers Bryan and Frances Beeston to find out what happens there.

Cows at Camelot Dairy Farm in mid-Canterbury are unashamedly pampered. They’re fed to appetite, brushed and can make up their own mind when it’s time for milking – to a degree anyway.

They’re also highly likely to get a scratch and paid a caring spot of attention by the boss, 27-year-old Frances Beeston.

The sign at the gate is the first hint this isn’t any ordinary dairy farm, pointing out you’re about to enter a place “where magic happens”. The rectangular, two-storied building cows are heading to isn’t any ordinary farm dairy either.

It’s home to eight Lely Astronaut A4 milking robots, all lined up together along with the Lely Cosmix feeding stations, four permanent and two portable, that let cows top up on the concentrate ration if they haven’t had time to eat their allocation while milking in the robots.

In the A4, the feed trough is taken away from in front of the cow when she’s finished milking so she doesn’t linger in the robot and cow flow is sped up.

Frances with one of the eight new Lely A4 Astronaut robots.

For cows producing 70litres of milk/day their daily ration of grain can be 7kg so time to top up in the Cosmix station is essential. At the end of March across the whole herd grain supplement was averaging 3.5kg/cow/day.

The post-milking yard where the feeding stations are located is also a socialising area for cows. They groom each other while they’re waiting their turn to dine or have a lick of molasses.

“It’s like they’re catching up for a coffee just like we do,” Frances said.

The 259ha farm is owned by Bryan and Annette Beeston and Frances, their daughter.

Bryan admits it’s a project driven both by his desire to set up a visionary farm with 2020 in mind and Frances’ love of cows and her eagerness to create a great environment for the “super star” Holstein Friesians and Brown Swiss cows she and Annette share a passion for breeding.

They’re from the family’s Triann and Blumoon studs and include some of the country’s highest producing animals.

Super fit

Frances was adamant that although they’ve gone down the robotic road, the cows were going to be kept outdoors and while that gives them all the benefits of free range grazing, these superstars have to work for their living and be fit.

“What you’re trying to do is to absolutely maximise the volume of milk you’re getting through the robots,” Bryan said.

He’s also business savvy and wants to see a good return from the investment. “That means you want cows presenting to be milked in a steady, constant flow and you want them to be giving a good quantity of milk.”

The robots can handle 60 cows each/day or more precisely up to 2500 litres/day based on the best volumes that have been achieved in New Zealand to date. So far Camelot’s got that up to 2000l/day/robot during their peak. In mid-March they were taking an average of 6.36 minutes/cow to milk out.

This year they’ll do around 280,000kg milksolids (MS) as they’ve brought cows into the system off the 140ha milking platform but they expect to do 350,000kg MS this coming season and are hopeful they can get up to 420,000-450,000kg MS from their 570 cows peak milked.

The aim is for the herd to be made up of 10,000-14,000l/year or 1000kg MS/year cows, something Bryan is confident can be achieved.

“Those cows are worth feeding and in this system we still don’t know the boundaries,” he said.

To encourage cows to head to milking from their paddocks, water is available only at the yard and break sizes in the paddocks are set so they’re grazed to a low residual by the time the automatic gates change at the dairy and send cows on to a new break.

The Beestons have gone for a four-way grazing system to help drive cow flow, which means gates change four times a day: 7am, 1pm, 7pm and 1am. Estimating the break size in the paddock is done by eye and watching what’s happening with cow movement and flow through the robots.

But of course not every cow will come up to the dairy during a grazing period, milk and move onto the new area. Paddocks are cleared of cows once every 16 to 22 hours to make sure no stragglers, who may have returned late in the grazing period, are left.

Getting it right is an art – too much feed in the paddock and they won’t leave, too little and they’ll keep coming back up to the dairy. Having top quality pasture in the paddock is key too so at times they’ve mown in front of the cows to get good intakes and maintain quality.

High input, multi-farm owner Bryan admitted it’s the closest any of the family’s farms have got to running a Lincoln University Dairy Farm (LUDF)-style residual grazing system.

“I guess you’d say we’re more like system six farmers usually but then these cows are producing an average of 700kg MS, several of them 1000kg MS, and they’re the kind of animals that need to be milked three times a day to protect their udders,” he said.

In a traditional, batch milking, large-scale Kiwi grazing system that isn’t user-friendly for cows or people, something that helped drive their move to robots.

The gate changes are key to keeping the cows moving but it means they walk an average 3.6km/day and Frances estimates it’s probably costing them up to 2l/cow/day in production.

You won’t see them over-fat either; they’re fit high-performance animals.

Cow distractions

The four gate changes mean four separate areas of the farm are needed with cows accessing three separate blocks on the farm by separate races. There can be cows coming and going on a race at the same time and because they’re social animals they can get distracted from what they’re up to.

To stop cows from turning around and walking with their friend, Frances set up a tape down the middle. That barrier has kept them focussed and helped with throughput at the robots.

The fourth area cows can access is a newly built 100m x 32m concrete feedpad that can accommodate up to 600 cows in two separate mobs.

It’s got a 1.5% slope on it but Bryan said it’s turned out it could have been less steep. Because they scrape it to clean it off, it could have been just a 0.5% slope which would have helped reduce the likelihood of cows slipping over in icy conditions.

It’s important to be able to have separate mobs on the feedpad at the same time because Camelot cows calve four times a year. That means there are constantly cows in different stages of lactation requiring different feeding on the farm. The automated feeding system that can allocate individualised rations at the robots and automatic feeders simplifies that.

Frances’ aim will be to keep around 570 cows in milk throughout the year and will use calving interval to achieve that. Dry cows will be accommodated on the farm as well. New heifers or cows coming into the system are trained at 4am, as 2am to 4.30am is usually a quieter time in the robots and Bryan is keen to have second calvers introduced rather than heifers because they’re keen to be milked.

Heifers slow down the robots too much, he said.

There’s little room for error with 60-70 cows/robot. A small break down or hold-up even on one robot can create a backlog that takes several hours to get through.

“It’s a bit like when there’s fog at the airport,” Bryan said.

With cows coming into the milking area at any time of the day or night mating also has to be managed carefully.

Frances artificially inseminates them herself so they can be dealt with right when they’re most fertile rather than waiting for a technician at set times. The cows have activity meters that help identify animals on heat and they are automatically drafted into a holding pen after milking. There’s food and water there so if a cow comes in at 11pm at night she’ll be comfortable until Frances arrives early the next morning.

Pregnancy testing will be done in small batches but they’re yet to sort out how they manage TB testing.

With cows coming and going at all times of the day and night and in various states of lactation there’s potential for it to be difficult to keep a close eye on them as individuals.

“You might not see a cow for a few days at a time so paying attention to them when you do is even more important,” Frances said.

But what's great about the computerised robotic system and the myriad of data it collects and reports available daily is that it does make an individualised approach possible.

Mission control

And for the self-confessed cow pamperer that’s definitely a great endorsement. The office and the screens Frances pores over resemble a control room with the monitoring information presented in a dashboard fashion so she can see at a glance at least 18 indices. She watches rumination levels as recorded by the activity meters on the cows’ collars closely and uses it as her first indicator something might be up.

Conductivity meters let her know somatic cell count (SCC) levels.

They’re no longer focussed on milking cows, rather they’re able to put the attention into caring for cows, Bryan said.

They’re doing things a little differently on the farm as well, taking a biological approach to fertiliser, using compost material recycled from Christchurch garden and household waste in an effort to build up the organic matter on the newly converted farm.

They’ve also installed variable rate irrigation to make the absolute most from every drop of water they get from the new Barhill Chertsey Irrigation (BCI) scheme. It has recently secured storage capacity from LakeColeridge to lift its reliability, although farmers must pay more each year to access that reliability. The variable rate irrigation installed on the six centre pivots mean the irrigators shut off over lanes and troughs in dry cow paddocks.

All the paddocks have troughs in them, with Frances tying off the ones milkers come into.

By 2015 Bryan said they’ll have a good idea exactly what the costs are in the robotic system compared with conventional, what the repairs and maintenance will be on the system, how reliable and durable the technology is and what kind of workload it really is for the people running it as well as whether the kind of people working in it will be different to typical dairy staff.

Farm Profile

Location: Mayfield, Canterbury

Owners: Bryan, Annette and Frances Beeston

Area: 259ha, 245ha effective

Milking platform: 140ha

Total cow numbers: 620

Milking cow numbers: 500 aiming for 570

Production: 350,000kg milksolids (MS) target

Farm dairy: 8 Lely A4 Astronaut milking robots

Supplements: 2.64t/cow/year average in four times a year calving system.

Irrigation: Six centre pivots, variable rate.

For another great article to read about

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