Geared to help staff and improve overall profitability, one New Zealand dairy farmer has taken a ‘building block’ approach to the use of farm technology. James Rickard reports.
Aiming to achieve greater livestock management efficiency and ultimately create a healthier bottom line for his dairy business, New Zealand farmer Michael Fitzi turned to technology for answers.
Located in the heart of the county’s dairy region, just outside Hamilton, Mr Fitzi originally hales from Switzerland, moving to New Zealand 45 years ago.
From the 100 hectares (247 acres) at Fitzi Farm, Mr Fitzi and his two staff milk 300 cows, comprising Friesian, Jersey, Ayrshire cross cows. “With its small frame, weighing about 475 to 520kg, it is a breed which suites this area and our grazing system,” he says.
Like many dairy farms in New Zealand, a one block calving approach is employed. Cows are dried off around May 30, coinciding with winter, with milking recommencing on July 7. This effectively gives a ‘rest’ period in which time farm maintenance can be carried out, for example.
“When calving starts, we can be calving up to 25 per day,” says Mr Fitzi. “Cows are generally easy calvers, with up to 2 per cent which require assistance. Most of the calving is done within a six week period.”
All calves and young stock are reared on-farm. When ready, heifers are inseminated artificially at about 18 months of age.
Cows are kept outdoors all year round, rotated in a paddock grazing system. Paddocks are about two hectares (five acres) in size, which can accommodate all 300 milking cows at once. Mr Fitzi says stocking rates can be kept this high due to the high grazing rotation, type of cows used and the type of land which he farms.
All paddocks are connected via tracks, with a map near the parlour showing where the herd is to head next. The furthest paddock is about 1.5km away from the parlour.
Cows spend about four to five days strip grazing each paddock, before being moved on to the next.
“Grass cover is key, poaching is not an option,” says Mr Fitzi. “To keep up the condition of the paddocks, the whole farm is over seeded every three years - mainly rye grasses with a mix of clover.”
Weeds are suppressed via spot spraying. “As we are in the paddocks every day, it is easy to keep on top of the weeds with localised spraying.”
As cows live outdoors, the only slurry collected on the farm comes from the parlour and the feed pad. This is collected in a small lagoon, which is then spread back on the land via an irrigation system. “Because big machines are not used to do this, compaction is kept to a minimum.”
To supplement grazing, cows are fed 2kg of compound feed in the parlour. They also receive a total mixed ration during the dry off period to keep up condition, with protein in the cows’ diet cut right back when drying off. Cows are milked twice a day with up to 118,800kg of milk solids produced by Fitzi Farm per year - each cow averaging 396kg.
A mixed ration is used to keep up cow condition during the dry off period.
One of the grazing paddocks being strip grazed.
A grazing paddock following 20 days of recovery.
The drafting gates saves considerable time.
To aid with labour, the first piece of technology to land on-farm was an automatic drafting gate in 2013, used to separate cows from the main herd upon their exit of the milking parlour, often for insemination, for example. Mr Fitzi says; “This saves considerable time and labour as the person in the parlour does not have to stop what they are doing to manually draft off a cow.”
The drafting gate was sourced from NZ company LIC Automation, known in the UK and Ireland under its Sabre brand (see about LIC Automation panel).
Mr Fitzi says; “I chose LIC because the drafting gate could easily be integrated with our existing herd management system. It was also compatible with our De Laval milking parlour, and gave us the option to add other LIC tech at a later date.”
Sensors allow better herd management.
Following on from issues with cell counts, in 2016 the next piece of Fitzi Farm’s technological puzzle was put in place. This was in the form of LIC’s cell count and milk yield sensors, Cell Sense and Yield Sense.
Mr Fitzi explains: “We often experienced cell count problems as we approached the drying off period and were continually treating cows. This meant we would have to dry off earlier to try and avoid any problems.
“Now with ability to monitor cell counts, it means we have the confidence to extend the milking season by about 20 days, tightening up the rest period. This makes us more productive without having to resort to all year round milking.”
Cell count sensors can monitor four milking units each, effectively checking 25 per cent of the herd every time it is milked. Yield sensors on the other hand can be fitted to every unit, says the manufacturer.
The farm's De Leval parlour.
Recently, a heat detection booth using cameras and an identification reader has been implemented at Fitzi Farm. “Making a big difference to the turnover of the farm is someone who can spot cows which are on heat,” says Mr Fitzi. “To maximise detection and aid my staff, I hope the latest addition will help this.”
Mr Fitzi particularly likes the ability to monitor all the technology from an app, as it allows him to monitor what is going on from virtually anywhere. “The technology massively helps with labour – one person can manage the whole of milking now. It also gives me piece of mind and allows for some quality down time.”
Overall, Mr Fitzi says; “The technology is not a replacement for good quality staff, but is there to back up their knowledge and provide them with the tools to make the most of the farm’s resources.”
LIC Automation is a subsidiary of LIC (Livestock Improvement Corporation), a New Zealand farmer-owned co-operative which specialises in manufacturing integrated ‘in-shed’ farm automation and sensor technology systems for the dairy industry.
Established in 1909, LIC’s head office is based in Hamilton, New Zealand with offices in the UK and Ireland.
Known in the UK and Ireland as Sabre, its products include herd management and real-time milk analysis systems, sensor technology, drafting gates and ID readers.
In one form or another, LIC Automations’ technology is present on about 1,800 New Zealand farms, it says, with the draft gate being the most popular.