Business Profile: Lely Robotic Milking

Farm Trader reports on the Lely Astronaut robotic milking system at a Manawatu family farm.

Brian and Margaret Schnell purchased their Bunnythorpe property 32 years ago. Brian, who is an acclaimed restoration guru of all kinds of antique engines, has embraced the move to robotics, which is a far cry from the likes of the steam engines he restores to original condition and takes his grandkids for rides around the farm on.

Brian and Margaret’s daughter Amy and husband Greg Gemmell’s journey into becoming herd-owning sharemilkers started in 2003 when Greg started managing the family operation. Now they are well into their new venture, which they are already huge advocates for, saying the conversion to robots has been much easier than they anticipated.

Currently milking their herd through three Lely Astronaut robots, Greg and Amy’s herd is made up of 240 Friesian cows, of which approximately 75 percent are spring calvers and the remaining 25 percent are autumn calvers.

“The reason behind going with the robot idea is that I’ve been on concrete now for 25 years, and I decided another 20 years on concrete just isn’t healthy,” Greg says. “The robots are so much more than reducing the physical, repetitive work on the body. We can see that this is a complete farm and cow management tool, where we have the flexibility to structure our day to a point rather than working around milking times.”

The previous 24 aside, Herringbone milking system on the Schnell property had cup removers, and Greg states he was happy with this system, but the decision to fill the pit and look ahead to the future was made, and now this happy duo are certainly not looking back.

Currently producing around 390kg MS/cow on an all grass-based system, Greg is hoping that within three years of having the robots, he will be able to get this up to 450–500kg MS/cow with the help of the A4 Astronaut robotic milking system and by utilising a split calving system.

With the guidance of Lely CenterTM Manawatu, Amy and Greg made the decision to transition their cows to the new robots over an eight-week period as calving took place. With two to six cows on an average to train a day and with beautifully quiet cows, the transition went smoothly from the get go.

“I’ve been really impressed with how quick the cows have adjusted to the system,” Amy says.

“They’re very happy cows. Our very first night after training, we were impressed with how it had gone, and then in the first week when we had seven cows come in overnight, it was just celebration time all around. We could actually see that this system was going to work, and now most of the herd come through the night between 10pm and 3am.”

Utilising the ABC pasture management system, the Lely ABC grazing system, cows alternate between three races within a 24-hour period, meaning less pressure on pasture and more recovery time for paddocks between grazing. Cows are offered the incentive of meal being fed through the robot each time they visit, which encourages them to be milked more often and then move onto a new pasture allocation.

Greg found that just three months into having robots was much easier to manage his pasture and that his paddocks weren’t being chewed down as hard as they were on the previous system.

“Being able to manipulate where the cows are going to go and how they’re going to graze is a really handy tool,” he says.

The Gemmell’s haven’t experienced much in terms of animal health issues on this Bunnythorpe farm, but with the T4C management system, they are now able to keep an eagle eye on what’s happening at a herd level, a group level, and at a per-cow level.

“You’ve taken a motorbike away, you’ve taken a backing gate away, and you’ve also taken the humans out of the milking area. I think by not having human intervention, cows with any health issues will naturally right themselves,” Greg says. Amy adds, “A cow may spike in cell count, yes, but often she’ll bring herself in to be milked a little more regularly and her cell count will come down naturally.”

Lely T4C herd management system collects and records all data provided by the Lely Astronaut robots through its many sensors, including cow weight, rumination minutes, cow activity, fat/protein indications, milk production, feed intake, milking speed and number of visits to the robot. It analyses and presents only clear and useful information, making for more control and more freedom when it comes to managing your herd.

“We’ve found that the information from the T4C system is invaluable. It just shows how much the four times a year herd testing really hasn’t given us the information we need about each cow,” Amy says.

Greg adds that all the information presented in T4C makes it far more reliable, as a manager, to keep an eye on the day-to-day running of the farm.

Having dealt with Bromley Dairy and Pumps Manawatu previously, Greg was happy with the service provided, so choosing Lely Center Manawatu (which Bromley Dairy and Pumps are a dealer for) as their robot supplier and servicer was a natural step. Greg says that the team at Lely Center Manawatu are like family to them, so much so that their kids have even named a Hereford calf ‘Big Red Trev’ after Trevor Ward, the Lely Center Manawatu sales manager.

“The most important aspect when putting in a system like this is that you have to have really good support,” Amy says. “We’ve never been left in the lurch. They’ve given us 110 percent.”

After just three months with the new system, Greg was already skiting that he gained six hours a day to be able to better manage the farms day-to-day running and complete other jobs as required saying, “No longer do I have the 5am set milking time. I can arrive at the farm knowing the cows are being milked voluntarily, set up the dates for the day, check the information on T4C over a cuppa, clean up, change the filter sock, feed calves, or feed out and attend to all of the other farm matters in my own time.

“I no longer have to stop what I’m doing to get to the 2pm milking. I can still be a farmer, a father, a husband, and hopefully a good, happy guy.”Greg now also has time to attend 3pm Ripper Rugby and soccer matches with their three boys – Flynn, and twins Hadley and Ronan.

Greg and Amy’s long-term goals are now achievable, thanks to the Lely Astronaut robotic milking system. This family affair now has the flexibility to focus on other business operations while optimising production within their herd.

Combined with the knowledge and experience in automated milking from Lely Center Manawatu, this farm is now a far cry from the Flintstones and a lot more like the Jetsons.


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