I've been overdue for a post! Below is a recent story in the Young Dairy Network newsletter....
I'm a 4th generation Dairy Farmer (to my knowledge) - 3rd generation on this property. It has been owned and operated by the Dennis family for 80 years. My Uncle Ray (71yrs) and Dad, Darrell (68yrs) were born and raised on this property - as was I (and our 2 children, Jewel 14 and Jack 6). They both continue to work full-time and are still actively involved in the decision making processes of day to day operations. What started as a 20 cow milking herd in the 1930's (with 4 box bales for hand milking) - grew to 360 cows milked on a 50 rotary platform in the mid '90's, and the 2nd largest dairy in Queensland - to today, being the first Lely Robotic Dairy in this state. Next year our annual production will surpass that of the 1990's - 2.3M litres through 4 Lely Astronauts....from only 240 milking cows!
The farm is in a transitional phase, as my responsibilities surrounding financial and operational management, and future direction increase. Ray and Darrell's wives, Aunty Rose (70yrs) and Mum, Brenda (63yrs), also remain active - although currently handing over the books/accounts to my wife Trish. They will remain a vital key to our new direction on farm - as we venture into tourism and education. Their life experiences (on and off farm), and natural ability to interact with visitors is invaluable. My dad and uncle are also happy to offer an insight into days gone by - the way technologies have changed the daily routines and workload on farm.
My mentors on farm have been quick to adopt new technologies thoughout my life - so this has obviously impacted my own thought processes. The decision to go robotic was a combination of factors and timing. I was personally coming off a diagnosis of Clinical Depression (January 2010) when I was asked (April 2010) about long time locals Matt & Alison Cahill's venture into a De Laval robotic dairy. Being a bundle of positivity, I was happy to inform people, including Dennis family members, why it was not a great idea - pointing out all the probable pitfalls...based on my robotic knowledge of absolute ZERO!! I was however prompted to do extensive online research - so you can imagine the frosty reception I received in May, at the suggestion we look into the robotic option on our farm. The timing of my Depression was also key, as it forced me to review what the future held for my family and myself, as dairy farmers.
Not easily deterred, I booked a flight to Victoria for Dad, our dairy technician (Derek Acheson) and myself, in June - to visit two Lely Robot farms in Gippsland, with Jurgen Steen from Lely. By July we had signed a contract for 3 Lely Astronauts - and milked the first cow robotically in October 2010! Undoubtably the best decision made on our farm to date, it did however take until the latter part of 2011 before family members were able to physically see the improving production results. The first six months after start-up were particularly draining, as I was forced to run almost entirely on belief in a vision...that no one around me could see. Almost another year on, we are exceeding targets, that even I had set. For the first time in my 26 year working life - our 200 cow milking herd has hit a 30L average, at 2.7 milkings per day, while maintaining components of 4.0%F and 3.3%P.
I never try to sugar-coat the commissioning proccess - telling other farmers, "However tough you think it will be...it's worse than that!" We simultaniously have to shift our personal perception of the best management practices (formed through decades of experience) - while educating the entire milking herd of a new way, dispelling all they've learnt through their whole life. Yes it is true, sadly, the cows adapted quicker than the farmers! Throughout this proccess, of some rediculiously long hours (several times working more than 100 hour weeks), and broken sleep - the one constant remained - my committment and belief to make this new system work. I knew what we were dealing with on farm was only temporary, and I continued to push that line to all involved in our operation.
For many years now, I have held a strong desire to offer public viewings at milking time. My concerns have grown in recent years, at the void between city and country. While I would be the first to admit, as a farmer, we're not looking for sympathy - it would be refreshing to receive a genuine empathy - for the efforts we go to, supplying their demands. Obviously the fixed milking times of a conventional dairy were not compatible school hours or day trippers. Robots seemed to be the perfect fit, as cows would now be milked around the clock. Our shed layout is deliberately 'transparent', and has many good vantage points and open spaces, all under cover. I did the initial setout - with viewing areas and future visitors in mind.
It is early days, but we've had an incredible couple of weeks, with in excess of 300 visitors to launch our new venture. The timing appears to be especially good, as recent surveys of Primary and High School students have shown us a glaring lack of awareness, when it comes to food production. We farmers may be a dying breed, but that only strengthens my resolve to make a positive impact amongst the wider population.