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  Five-generation dairy farm goes robotic

By Nelson Zandbergen - AgriNews Staff Writer

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  • MARTINTOWN --  This month, robots will take over a chore previously handled by five generations of humans at the Murray family dairy farm.

    In a project that began this spring, the free-stall cattle barn at Murrayholm Farms has been expanded to accommodate a pair of spanking new Lely Astronaut A4 robots -- among other facility improvements to consolidate the entire herd under one roof.

    With the changes nearly finished, the Murrays are about to cease milking their cows in the double-four parlour housed in a converted, early-1900s barn located just across the yard from the free-stall structure.

    Ever since the free-stall was put up in 2002, they've continued to milk in the old parlour barn last updated in the mid-1990s -- moving the cows back and forth twice a day --  while considering their options for further improvements and a potential herd expansion the free-stall was constructed to handle.

    Murrayholm herdsman Devon Murray -- partners in the operation with his parents Campbell and Alison, and his brother Dale -- said they decided to go with the robotic option this past winter, instead of investing in a new parlour to complete the free-stall setup in the more traditional way.

    Driving the decision toward robots, he said, was a desire to become more efficient, as well as the quota changes that now make a rapid herd expansion impossible.

    "It was mostly labour. It was mostly too much work in terms of the hours per litres of milk" currently produced on the farm with its existing parlour arrangement and 86 milk cows, Devon explained, adding their milking-related workload today was calculated at three times as much as a robotic operation would be.

    The transition to robots will allow more time for herd management, he said, and allow his 71-year-old father, who built their first parlour in 1967, and his mother to work less on the farm.

    The robotic option also means not having to replace the elder Murrays with hired help, had the family decided to go with a new parlour.

    Devon also looks forward to having a little more flexibility in his schedule for showing the farm's cattle, under the Murrayholm prefix. The robots should also deliver the benefit of increased production, as the cows will now get milked more than the standard twice a day. The herd currently averages 32 to 33 kg of production per head daily, Dale said.

    "We've been counting down the days," Devon said of the robots' impending startup. "We're pretty psyched up."

    The project includes the construction of 15,000 additional square footage onto their free-stall. The new floorspace provides room for four new calving pens, special treatment pens, and approximately 20 additional stalls for a gradual milking herd expansion to 115 head.

    Also under construction is an expansive new milkhouse featuring washrooms, offices, medicine room and a windowed observation area overlooking the pair of Lely robots in the adjoining free-stall.

    Levi DeJong, general manager of Lely Center East, a division of Dundas Agri Systems in Brinston, said the Lely robots at the Murray place -- the latest model -- include a 3D overhead camera system that helps the unit more quickly determine a cow's position as the animal enters the unit. Lasers zero in on the teats to ultimately latch the milker unit on the teats after cleaning them.

    "There's not any cow the robot can't milk," said DeJong, who pointed out that Lely robots have only continued to get better over the past decade while the price hasn't risen --  which means the capital cost has effectively dropped.

    The units are available at $250,000 installed for the first one, he said, falling to less than $200,000 for a second. Unlike previous models, two robots can now use a single "central unit" --  a combination of vacuum pump, boiler and cleaning chemical system -- which also reduces the cost.

    DeJong said cows milked by the robotic system visit the machine an average of 2.8 times daily, resulting in an average 10 production increase.

    The cows become "free-range" animals that are milked by their own choice --  a concept that DeJong suggested could become marketable with consumers one day.

    The units also deliver part of the animal's feed grain ration, which is what really keeps the cows coming back to the robot, according to DeJong.

    Data on milk butterfat and somatic cell count levels are automatically measured and stored for each cow, as is the animal's body weight and feed consumption. Herd management rises to a whole new level of pinpoint accuracy.

    Asked what his grandfathers of old would have thought of the technology, Cambbell Murray remarked, "I couldn't have imagined it even when I started out."

    "Nor can we imagine what's ahead," added his wife, Alison. With a smile, she said they won't miss the ritual of having to go out and milk twice a day, even when "full of turkey" and sitting at the Christmas dinner table.

    Once the robots become operational, the family will spend the next few weeks training their animals to make use of the units, by repeatedly guiding them to the machines.

    DeJong said that Lely has developed protocols and methods to ease farmers through this training process.

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