Southern Star Farms Ltd is an 456 hectare mixed farm near Waituna Laggon, Southland which runs both a 300 Jersey cows and 2500 breeding ewes and is an operation run seamlessly by a husband and wife duo. Wife Jo looks after the dairy side of the business, where cows are milked through four Lely Astronaut A4 robots, whilst husband Darrin looks after the dry-stock operation (story from 2019).

Freedom for cows

The concept of robotic milking is built around the cow, ensuring cows like to be milked, making it very different from conventional milking in many ways. One of the main differences being that cows can be milked more in line with their natural behaviour. To maximise the benefit of this concept an environment like Jo Crack enables their cows to be milked more than twice a day whilst still being able to graze when they like, utilising a 100% pasture-based system.

Managing everything myself

Six years on from the installation of their Astronaut A4 robots Jo explains that the most attractive aspects of converting to robots was she would be able to look after 300 cows by herself, without any staffing issues. “Fewer staff needed; for me this is one of the most attractive aspects of having a robotic system. I can look after my 300 cows by myself. I run our robotic dairy unit virtually on my own. I don’t need every second weekend off as it’s not physically demanding. I once broke a bone and wrecked the ligaments in my knee, [but] I was still able to run the robotic dairy unit, albeit much more slowly. I wouldn’t have been able to milk in a conventional system. I do have help for calving and have someone to help with [feeding] the calves.

Less work 

Discussing the upsides of their robots, Jo states; “I don’t have to strip the colostrum cows. Of the 300 cows we calve down each season, not one is stripped unless the robot draws attention to the cow for mastitis or high somatic cell count. Of course if I have a cow that is not milking out in a quarter I will put her aside and check her. This season I checked or stripped about five colostrum cows. I don’t use teat seal”. As well as this huge time saving advantage Jo talks about how the cows are always milked out properly “this was always the biggest issue of the herringbone, nobody wants to wait for a slow cow. Robots don’t mind and they take the cups off each quarter as it is milked out. This is certainly not possible in a conventional system”. As well as these huge benefits provided by the Astronaut Jo experiences less mastitis amongst her herd and in-turn less drug use, she doesn’t have to change out milk lines between cows, has fewer problems with sore feet, longer herd life span due to the extremely gentle treatment of all cows, plus is able to operate with just one herd stating “I find the heifers are able to compete with the cows in the robotic system far better than they ever did in the conventional system”.

Milking time and milk frequency 

With no ambition to milk more than 400 cows within their current Astronaut platform Jo states the ambition is instead to improve milking times and frequency of robot visits, stating “I have found with robots that less is more in terms of cow numbers. As I am able to increase the milking speed of my cows, I should end up with more free time on my robots and therefore room to milk more cows if I want to. We have plenty of room for improvement without increases cow numbers”!

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Flexibility to get job done

Spending just an hour in the shed each day, plus around 20 minutes setting up the four feed breaks for the day, Jo now has the flexibility to get her jobs done when she wants to. “I don’t have to do my jobs at the robot shed at 4am or any other regular time. If I’ve got plans for the day I do my jobs at a time that suits me. I’m often here at 7pm at night, but that suits me. It’s rare for me to be at my robot shed before 9am that is unless I’m going to be away for the day. There’s no need for someone to be there monitoring the robots. If they need me, they ring”.

Lely T4C management system

Jo is kept well-informed with what is happening within her herd and their individual performance thanks to the Lely T4C management system which keeps track of each cow’s health and feed intake. Lely T4C knows exactly what is going on in the shed and serves as a library, operating system, herdsman, personal assistant and trainer all at the same time. If there is a problem with a cow, the many sensors within the Astronaut let Jo know by analysing and presenting only clear and useful information helping her make both strategic and operational decisions quickly and effectively.

Jo purchased a fourth Grazeway which allows cow’s access to four different feed breaks within a 24 hour period. Jo finds that this new method of allowing for four feed breaks instead of three encourages her cows to visit the robots more frequently and in turn increases milk production.

“I really rate the Lely Astronaut A4 robots. They are light years ahead of conventional milking systems – both for the people and the cows” says Jo. And, it’s not just the Astronaut Jo rates, but also the service provided by Lely Center who are on-call and ready to act should they be required 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Lely Astronaut - Jo Crack (English / New Zealand)

Why Lely?

Farmers all over the world make choices about how they set up and run their farms. Every day, we help them make the best choices for themselves and their farms. We do this by providing advice and innovative solutions that contribute to efficient farm management. For sustainable milk and meat production. Present and future.