Ngāi Tahu Farming is trialling two different trellis systems installed with an eye to eventual robotic harvesting.
Owned by the South Island's largest dairy operation -- the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group -- the farm at Makikihi will eventually house 1500 cows milked day and night by 24 DeLaval robots. The barn is 193m long, 67m wide and 12m high.
On September 25, owners Aad and Wilma van Leeuwen began milking 750 cows with 12 DeLaval robots, using one half of the shed; contactors are installing the remaining 12 robots and full production is expected by Christmas.
The van Leeuwens will invest close to $22 million: $8.5m for the land, $4.2m for the robots and $5m for the barn. 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 robots and will concrete the surrounds of the barn. A 46 cubic metre diet feeder mixer wagon and tractor have also been purchased. A lot of development work is being carried out on the farm including fencing off all streams and planting them out as well as installing some wetlands.
Van Leeuwen agrees it's a massive investment but points out that they recently sold a farm in the area for close to 80% of what has been invested in the new property. That farm produced 450,000kgMS annually. On the new farm milk production is expected to top 800kgMS/cow within five years or 1,200,000 kgms.
"In this farm production will be up three times when fully up and running," he told Dairy News. "I may be spending a bit extra here but it gives you an idea of what you can achieve inside compared to outdoors."
The barn will be 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.
"Then they go to the other side – the late lactation side – and from there eventually get dried off again and go outside in the paddock for two months where they calve and come back."
The van Leeuwens are no strangers to robotic milking; their home farm runs two free-stall barns, both 500-cow facilities built in 2009. They run 12,000 cows on 13 operations and own a contracting company as well as being self contained with regards to dairy support land.
Van Leeuwen is confident of reaching his target milk production of 800kgMS/cow in five years. "The cows on the home farm are doing 750kgMS/cow; we are expecting this to rise to 800kgMS plus so there's no reason why we can't do it here."
To achieve that the cows will need to grow in size; the van Leeuwens plan to mate the herd with Holstein Friesians and calve year-round.
However, there is no rush to "push the limits". "The aim is not to push it to the limits you see in Europe and America, where they are pushing to 12,000L/cow/day.... That puts a lot of pressure on your herd. Our goal is to focus on milk solids and do it in a sustainable way."
This will also help the cows live longer. Van Leeuwen says it depends on how hard you push the cows and how much you focus on litres. "Our strategy is to focus on milk solids and the average age of herd should come up."
Sustainable farming is a feature of the barn; the farm uses no fertiliser. Instead, effluent is recycled onto paddocks.
"What comes out gets recycled... the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are there," says van Leeuwen. "You know what's in a tonne of effluent so you can work out effluent irrigation accordingly; this is nothing new and has been done in Europe, Canada and North America. But it's new to this part of the world."
Effluent from the barn's laneways will be continually cleared by automatic chain-pulled scrapers, draining down into the 7m deep, 23.5m radius tank.
The aim is to use the effluent as base fertiliser for the feed crops surrounding the shed, a 28,000L slurry tanker applying it by dribble-bar or injector. "With injection we're burying it in the soil so there's no loss of nutrient to the air or smell to annoy the neighbours. It's very effective. We've been doing it for three years."
The dribble-bar is used on existing grassland and lucerne.
The cows are fed mostly maize, lucerne and grass silage. A few kilos of canola meal are thrown in every day depending on the need and pellet rations are offered in the robotic milkers.
The correct feed mix will give 2.5 times the production of conventional grass systems. "It's all worked out; you know what's in your stack because the stacks are tested. You also know what the cows are requiring; we work on the basis of 17-18% protein, 240MJ ME/cow."
Nearly all the feed will be 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.
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.
The barn has rubber mats for cows to walk on, so there's no moving them in and out of the barn to get them used to standing on concrete. And the cows do not slip over.
"The cows are happy inside; they don't have to face the weather outside. A happy cow produces lots of milk."
Van Leeuwen notes it is beneficial always to have staff among the cows. "The workers are always closely associated with the cows; with the help of the robots, we can always check if any of the cows are sick."
Since the farm is a 24/7 operation, a herd manager is on shift all the time. And at full production van Leeuwen expects 12 fulltime staff to be working in and outside the barn.