It has been a busy five months for the Dee family from Macorna who turned the management of their dairy farm on its head when they built the first ever robotic compost barn in the country.
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Featuring eight Lely Astronaut A5 robotic milkers, six Lely Cosmix feeders, eight Luna brushes for the cows and a Lely Juno to push up the feed, the system has revolutionised the way the family farms.


Partner Mark Dee said the business was reaping the benefits of increased production with the 465-cow herd peaking at 35 litres.


“We installed a 32,000 litre vat and expected to be on every second day pick-up for quite some time, but just today we sent 30,000 litres so every day pick-up isn’t too far away,” Mark said.

He said when the cows first moved into the barn back in May of this year, they weren’t breaking any records and were averaging around 24 litres.


“There is no denying the fresh cows have helped push up production, but we can’t underestimate the consistency of the cows’ diet and the environment of the barn and how content the whole herd now is, it is amazing.”

Mark said fresh cows re-entering the system were rapidly gaining production.


“They are going through the system on average 2.5 times per 24 hours and the graphs show by day 20 they are really ramping up their per-cow production.”


The system is programmed to automatically drop 3kg of grain every time a cow enters the robot.

Mark said the data coming out of the system was enabling the family to farm better, which, at the end of the day, was increasing per-cow production, improving the overall health of the herd and, just as importantly, positively impacting the bottom line.

Each cow is fitted with a Lely SCR transponder on its collar.


“Our preg test results have been unbelievable,” Mark said.


In August 83 per cent of the cows tested were pregnant and in October another 70 were tested with 92 per cent in calf.


“The program really hits the sweet spot for AI. We have never had conception results like that before, previously we would have been happy with around 70 per cent,” Mark said.


The data is also spot on for mastitis detection or sick cows.

“A drop in rumination is flagged really quickly so we can pick up any animal that is off and get it treated really quickly.


“Currently we have one cow sick with pneumonia, one with slight nitrate poisoning which we think came from some vetch hay not chopped up properly in the mix and one with blood in her quarter from getting stood on. There is not one single cow in the herd being treated for mastitis.”


Mark said in the old dairy they always ran a sick herd and it wouldn’t be uncommon to have five or six cows treated for mastitis at once.


He doesn’t miss the nine hours spent milking in the dairy, either.


The working day now starts at 6am instead of 4.30am and finishes around 7pm.

With all the cows housed in one place, time management has improved and on the day Dairy News contacted Mark, the family had got the springers in, needled heifers and sorted out the fresh cows all before 10.30am.


“The beauty of the barn is we don’t have to hang around and wait for anything because the cows are all in one spot. We do spend around 1-1.5 hours a day hosing around the robots and rails, while the flood wash takes care of the alley three times a day.”


Like most transitions there have been a few trying moments along the way and by far the biggest was initially training the cows to accept the system.


In hindsight Mark said moving into the barn in May wasn’t ideal from a timing perspective.


“We were heading in to the cold and wet damp months and we did have a lot of issues with the compost side of things.

“It was really hard to establish a dry pack for the cows to loaf on and because we are the only one of our kind in Australia at the moment, it was hard to source information to help. We seem to have the compost well sorted now.”

Mark said there had been a lot of interest in their barn and plenty of people had travelled out for a look.

His advice to anyone considering a similar system is simple.


“Don’t rush in, planning is the key, and do your homework.


“We changed quite a few things throughout the process and had a few hold-ups along the way, but you are better to get it right from the beginning, even if it costs you a bit extra at the time, it will be cheaper in the long run.”


Mark farms with his wife Mandy, his dad Adrian and siblings Colin, Kevin, Adam and Clare.


The compost barn sits on about one hectare and comprises of a 200m by 60m shed housing eight robotic milkers, divided into four separate spaces with a wide central feed alley complete with 24-hour access to a TMR.

The barn includes a designated vet area complete with a crush and AI facility along with an office, staffroom and upstairs viewing platform.


A climate controlled sensor activates fans and sprinklers when required and while the cows do have access to an outside area, they seem to prefer spending their day chewing their cud and loafing on the soft pack compost.


Clean water is delivered via two dams with a total storage capacity of 35 megalitres and all wastewater is recycled, travelling through an effluent separator before it enters the two-dam 15 Ml system.

Fonterra is in the middle of a big restructure of its capital. It is still the case given its dominance over us that where Milk Supertanker Fonterra goes, we go.

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