Nuffield scholar and West Gippsland dairy farmer Aubrey Pellett believes robotics and new technology — beyond anything currently seen in Australia — can improve the productivity, profitability and lifestyle of dairy farmers across Australia.
In addressing agriculture’s perennial question of how to make more from less, he says technology, data and research need to be given priority.
Mr Pellett’s 2014 Nuffield Scholarship allowed him to investigate how to improve productivity for Australian pasture-based dairy farming.
His recently released report outlines the findings from his two-year scholarship, which included travel to the Philippines, China, Canada, United States, Netherlands, France, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, United Kingdom and New Zealand to investigate how to improve productivity for Australian pasture-based dairy farming.
``Recently, robotic rotary milking systems have been introduced overseas that can significantly boost labour productivity. Their high system capacity is well suited to Australia’s pasture-based grazing systems, allowing one supervisor to milk 500 cows in a batch fashion,’’ he said.
``What’s so appealing is that adoption of this technology would require minimal farm or production system change, while providing physical relief and rich information at the cow level.
``Robotics tailored to the dairy farm environment have the potential to offset the big challenges facing Australia’s dairy industry, namely increasing farm and herd sizes, scarcity of labour, and complex production systems.’’
Mr Pellett said the increasing use of other technologies overseas linked into a robotic batch milking system, sometimes called `precision dairy’, could provide additional productivity benefits such as increased pasture and animal yield, and reduced costs through better targeted inputs.
``An example I saw on a farm in Sweden, called the `herd navigator’ (not currently for sale in Australia), automatically takes milk samples throughout a cow’s lactation allowing you to identify her cycle, when she’s in calf, or identify any health events early.
``Scientists are also developing algorithms to identify the link between a cow’s behaviour and subsequent animal health and fertility events.
``Sensors, soon to come onto the market, are at what I call the first iPhone stage, with lots of development and capability to come, but they are a good example of the burgeoning technology Australian farmers can investigate.’’
Mr Pellett said the capacity to capture and analyse farm data also provided the opportunity to consolidate this information into a data co-op, owned by farmers.
The 2014 Nuffield Scholar says his research shows there is great opportunity for the Australian industry to refocus research and development activities, taking the lead from other countries.
``My research findings backed my early thinking that by focusing on annual profit, our industry can tend to lose the opportunity to build longer-term productivity gains into our businesses.
``For Australia to enjoy full benefits, investment needs to be made to ensure the nature of our grazing system is considered, perhaps through collaboration with other grazing-focused countries.
``For a variety of reasons, dairy as an industry has really failed to achieve the growth margins it might otherwise have had,’’ he said.
``Although the development of precision dairy technology is in its infancy, decisions based on real-time cow and paddock information can increase yield, reduce costly inputs, improve animal welfare, and enable farmers to focus on decision-making rather than task completion.
``After my extensive international travel through parts of Asia, Europe, the United States and New Zealand I strongly believe we can achieve these gains with greater investment in technology and its support systems.’’
Nuffield Australia provides opportunities to Australian primary producers and managers to travel the globe investigating a research topic important to them and Australian agriculture. Scholars are provided with a $30000 bursary to embark on a 16-week program consisting of group and individual travel over a two-year period.