Robotic milking systems are growing in popularity around the world, with a handful of farmers in South Australia using the technology.

At Mil-Lel, near Mount Gambier, Josh, Sam and Natalie Clark have six Lely Astronaut A5 milking robots and a Lely Time for Cows management system, which they installed in November 2018.

The dairy is run under a voluntary milking and grazing system, where the cows walk into the robots when they are ready to be milked. The management system provides immediate individualised information on cow weight, cow health, milk production and milk quality.

Jake Connor, who owns a Mount Compass dairy, visited the Clark Farm last year. “We’re interested in doing this down the track, so I wanted to see it for myself,” Jake said.

“I think it’s a more sustainable way to farm. There’s less physical work, it’s more labour efficient and it’s better for the cows. It’s much more natural for them – they get milked when they want to get milked, not brought into the dairy in a big group when we need them to be milked.”

Jake said there were also time efficiencies to be gained from cows controlling their own milking schedules, rather than being walked into the dairy for milking.

In terms of hygiene, the robot is cleaned between each cow, with cups flushed to prevent cross contamination. “And inbuilt sensors detect mastitis, so we could separate affected cows quicker,” Jake said.

Milk cooling is also much more efficient. “With robotic milking it’s a smaller and more consistent flow of milk into the dairy, rather than big slugs of milk at a time,” Jake said.

“Those big slugs coming in mean the temperature spikes and the machinery has to work harder to cool it. So, as well as being better for milk quality, we think the robotic system will mean electricity savings too.”

The financial outlay of a robotic milking system is considerable – it’s approximately 25% more expensive to set up a robotic dairy than a traditional dairy.

“And our dairy really doesn’t need replacing for another five to six years, so it’s hard to justify now, but it’s something I really want to do,” Jake said.

“I think robotic systems are a great thing for the South Australian dairy industry to invest in. It’s a way to keep our industry positive, strong and sustainable.”

Robotics lead to happy cows

A study has shown that cows in robotic dairies are quieter and less stressed.

PhD candidate Ashleigh Wildridge, based at the University of Sydney Dairy Research Foundation, tested anecdotal evidence that dairy cattle were quieter in automatic milking systems.

“In a handling test, we drafted the 70 cows and the farmer put them through a gate one at a time,” Ms Wildridge said.

“We observed the fact that the cows had significantly reduced stress responses after they had transitioned to the automatic milking systems.”

She investigated four pasture-based and one indoor dairy transitioning from conventional to automatic milking in Victoria, Tasmania and NSW.