When Southern Fleurieu farmers Michael and Peter Krichauff decided to move from sheep farming to dairy farming in the 1990s, they raised a few eyebrows. They raised a few more this year when they installed three milking robots at their Three Bridges Dairy.

Michael said while the move to robotics was tough financially, it has already paid dividends in lifestyle, cow health and milk quality.

“We built the dairy in 1996. It was a conventional 30-aside Herringbone swing over dairy,” Michael said.

“My family and I were quite a bit younger then and we could manage the milking with one employee to milk 240 odd cows. And then, as time went on, we all got a bit older and the workload increased as a result of more intensive farming.

“But in the last five years, getting good staff became a big problem. We sat down and had a big discussion about the future. We had to decide if we wanted to go on with the dairy or pull the pin on it all together. But I still have a passion for milking cows, so we weren’t ready to walk away.”

Michael knew they had to do something differently and following significant research, they installed three GEA robots and infrastructure for a fourth robot next year.

“We were fortunate when we built the dairy back in ’96 that we built a big, tall shed and the dairy was big enough to retrofit robots,” Michael said.

“We were also able to use all our existing milk storage infrastructure. We just had to adapt the new technology to it. For us it was just the cost of the robots and a very small amount of steel infrastructure.”

Including the cost of the infrastructure for the fourth robot, the total cost of robotics at Three Bridges was around $800,000.

“With the fourth robot next year, we’re hoping to have the whole job done for around $1 million. That will give us the ability to milk 270 cows,” he said.

“The scariest thing with robotics is the upfront costs. We are, however, managing with one less full-time labour unit and that’s in the vicinity of $80,000 a year. The robots last 15 years and if they are looked after they’ll last even longer. As a result, the one labour unit saving alone will cover the cost of what we’re doing. But the benefits of installing robots are much more than purely financial.”

Michael looked at a few different robots but said the GEA robots really stood out to him.

“The adaptation of robotic technology and three-dimensional cameras for cow health and milk quality detection is fantastic,” he said.

“Now we’re starting work at eight or nine in the morning and rarely working past four in the afternoon. I really think this is the future for dairy farming.”

The GEA system delivers a range of quality information during milking. And Michael now has far greater control of milk production consistency.

“There are four cameras watching all four quarters of the cow and the milk coming off. It’s looking for any colour anomaly, it’s looking for conductivity anomalies and it will automatically segregate one-quarter of the milk out of a cow if it picks up any anomalies at all,” Michael said.

“I think once we’ve learnt the system and fine-tuned it for our situation it will be an exceptional system. Our cell count now predominantly sits at an average of between 120,000 and 140,000 per month. Prior to the robots, we struggled to keep it under 200,000. And we were probably averaging close to 190,000 per month.

“That was with three or four different people milking the cows at any given time. We’ve taken that human element away and are now relying on robots to do the job which is much more consistent.”

Michael said the time savings offered by robots was a key benefit.

“I’ve got a daughter who has just started working in the business full-time. She’s always had a passion for agriculture, so we also had that in the back of our minds when we were considering the future of the farm,” Michael said.

“But the younger generations are not so fond of getting up at four in the morning and milking cows in the middle of winter. Which is fair enough. With robotic milking, you don’t have to run your dairy farm like that anymore.

“The positives are significant. We don’t spend much time in the dairy compared to what we did before. We’re milking about 190 cows currently and we spend about three-quarters of an hour a day washing out and cleaning the dairy. Whereas, for 190 cows being milked by hand, we’d be looking at 2.5 hours morning and night.

“Now the cows are moving around freely and we’re not having the hassle of moving them into the dairy ourselves and milking them. It’s incredible how far it has come.”

Michael said the cows seem much happier and much less stressed.

“The only explanation I can give is that we’re at the head of the cow a lot more often than we used to be. Previously we were at the tail end of the cow putting cups on. But now whenever we’re with the cows we are in front of them, and I think they’ve become very used to us and comfortable with us,” he said.

“Now, if you walk through a yard of cows, you’ve got to make a bit of noise and push them out the way because they don’t move. They used to move out of the way quite easily. Now they’re just standing there happily chewing their cud which is quite pleasing to see.

“We’ve also installed a cow brush in the yard. When the cows come in, they might be waiting in the yard for an hour to get milked by the robots. The cow brush is there for the cows to have a bit of a scratch and enjoy their time.”

Yet another benefit is the boost to animal health. “We’ve had a year that’s been extraordinary weather wise. We’ve had so much rain in late winter. Up until the start of August, we’d had 400ml of rain for the entire year. For the month of August, we had 266ml of rain and another 120 plus mm for September,” Michael said.

“That’s very, very wet conditions for moving a mob of 190 cows around. We would be having some very significant health issues with regards to the boggy paddocks and lame cows.

“Now with the robots, the cows move around predominantly in single file and come in for milking when they want to be milked. We don’t have any of those logistical problems. We’ve still got a few lame cows this year, just because the weather was so bad, but I believe we would have had a lot more if we were milking conventionally.”

Michael said one challenge of moving to robotics was learning to look at animal health from a different perspective. “You’re looking at the animal from a computer screen as opposed to physically looking at a cow. That was probably one of the biggest challenges that we faced,” he said.

“And they are robots, not people. We still have to look out for the lame cows. We still have to look out for animal abnormalities that the robot might not necessarily find.

“But having said that, we did have a cow segregated by a robot a few months ago and we physically couldn’t see anything wrong with it. The robot was picking up on temperature, milk yield and other related anomalies and it was drafting that cow off.

“The second day the robot drafting it off again, saying there was action required, but by then we could see that something wasn’t quite right with the cow. We called the vet only to find out the cow had an early case of pneumonia. That robot picked up on that at least 24 hours before we physically could see it.”

Moving forward, Michael is keen for his business to continue to adapt and embrace new technology as it presents itself.

“The future generations of farmers will be very different from what we have now. If I was told when I started milking cows over 30 years ago that robots would be putting cups on cows for us in the future, I would have laughed! Now I can only image what lies ahead,” he said.