Mind your negative language to farmers: that’s the message to rural professionals dealing with dairy farmers in the lower North Island.
Farm location and topography
Is there reliable mobile phone coverage and broadband available? An AMS (auto milking system) requires broadband for remote servicing and phone coverage is essential so you are alerted to technical problems at the dairy.
How far away do you live from the dairy? You will need to attend to alarms that can occur anytime in 24 hours.
Is the farm hilly, long and narrow or does it comprise fragments of land with roads in between? Experience to date suggests that walking distances of up to 1km present few issues for cows. It is not necessary for cows to be able to see the dairy from all paddocks however; New Zealand farms are generally flat to rolling. As the land becomes steeper it is likely that more intervention will be required.
Is there a service provider within two hours of your farm and will they guarantee support within this time? Don’t forget that an AMS operates 24 hours a day and require 24 hour support.
Is your shed due for renewal? A conversion to AMS is capital intensive; have you got the most from your existing dairy?
Is the current site relatively central on the farm? The ideal location for an AMS dairy is near the middle of the farm so that walking distances are sminimised, however the cost of installing services such as power will be higher the further from the road or current dairy.
What farm system is best suited to automatic milking?
Dairy farms in NZ are classified as system 1 to 5 based on the level of bought feed (including grazing off) used and fertiliser applied. There are farms in every system operating AMS in NZ. In general the higher the level of imported feed the easier it should be to implement and get the full benefit of automatic milking and individual cow feeding, particularly if supplementary feed is offered at the dairy. All systems require good grazing management to encourage good cow flow and optimise pasture production and utilisation.
A small level of concentrate is generally required to maintain cow flow through the milking stations although there is one farm in NZ operating successfully with only grass and no feed in the AMS.
The DairyNZ research farm (Greenfield project) successfully operates as a system 2 farm. With conventional systems emphasis is on milk production per ha. This is equally applicable to automatic milking, however milk production per milking station is another important performance indicator for system profit. The focus should be on making best use of the automatic milking system, whichever farm system is operated.
How many milking stations will your farm need to milk the herd?
The most common automated milking systems milk one cow at a time but operate 24h/day. The number needed to milk a herd will depend on how often you want the cows to be milked, the peak yield of the herd and what level of utilisation of the milking stations can be achieved. Typical numbers of cows per AMS are 60 to 90.
Each milking has a fixed set-up time, so the aim is to increase the yield per milking by increasing the milking interval but not to the extent that per cow production is compromised.
Is a seasonal or split calving pattern more suited to AMS?
Both can work well on an AMS farm. While split calving better utilises the AMS through the year, the decision should be based on economics and the profitability of winter milking needs to be carefully evaluated. Seasonal calving places additional pressure on the AMS about four weeks into calving. This is because of the washing time required between colostrum and mastitis cows. Plan the dairy layout so that colostrum cows can be drafted to a particular robot which avoids taking up time on the other machines.
Do you expect to increase herd size in the short to medium term?
Consider the AMS capacity and leave space for further robots in the dairy design. Remember as the herd gets larger the economics favour conventional milking as more cows can be milked in the same facility whereas more cows will usually require more robots on an AMS farm.
Will AMS maintain your system productivity?
The association between pasture utilisation and milk yield are important in both conventional and automatic milking, however the emphasis on the two within automatic milking has additional benefits to the system (i.e. cow flow). This means that an effective AM farm is a highly effective conventional farm. DairyNZ research has produced results from a low input system (2.5% of feed imported) that are equivalent to a ‘best practice’ conventional system.