Rural Australia is being progressively hollowed out of its people. Will it be reduced to a vast mechanised place of scant human habitation?
These kine are in no hurry. Each merely meanders to the dairy, all rolling hindquarters, swishing tails and loping heads, the blue-black and tan Rorschach ink-blot patching of their conceals vivid against the washed-out Australian summer sunlight. They stop as they please along the way. Chew cud. Moo. Drop pats. Moo again. They nudge the soft globe or a companion before snorting and continuing on up through the paddocks to the shed.
Its milking time just as its always milking time in this dairy for about 360 Friesians at Camden, where the outer orbit of Sydney devotes style to the gentle rise that becomes the southern highlands. These kine are not held to the human clock and milked according to the dairy farmers traditionally antisocial( for both people and kine) timetable, at the crack of dawn and again at dusk. And they dont have to line up for hours, either, cramped in a race, their udders exploding, in order for a dairy worker to rapidly rinse their teats, apply the suction beakers, extract their milk, disinfect and send them on their way.
Induced to stray to the dairy merely by the irresistible promise of fresh grassland beyond, these animals are milked according to a pattern that largely meets their rhythm of grazing, watering, resting and lactating.
They are not herded or cajoled in any way to head for the shed. There are no dogs snapping at stragglers fetlocks. Its rare for people to bother them at all. Indeed, theres scarcely a person in sight on this dairy farm, situated in the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute.
There are no people about because, once the kine reach the shed, they effectively milk themselves in what is the worlds first robotic rotary milking dairy. The outcome of a collaboration between the Swedish dairy equipment producer DeLaval, Dairy Australia and the University of Sydneys faculty of veterinary science, the Camden property is host to the research-and-development prototype FutureDairy, which can automatically milk up to 90 kine an hour.
Two commercial models of FutureDairy have been operating since 2012 on large-scale Australian dairy farms, one in Tasmania and the other in Victoria. About 36 other commercial farms in Australia utilize the smaller-scale robotic technologies of other innovators to do what has hitherto been the backbreaking manual and, later, semi-automated, work of dairy farmers for well over two centuries.
While the name FutureDairy is freighted with prescience for an epoch yet to be reached, it is, in fact, already arriving and transforming the economies and lifestyles of the early adopters. Its positive implications for dairy production are no less profound for animal welfare and, of course, for the wellbeing of the dairy farmer a person who, almost invariably, endures the unforgiving rigidities and relentless physical work of milking kine by virtue of birth rather than choice.
No less acute or obvious are the potential ramifications for the dairy farm labourer. On a conventional Australian dairy farm the principles of the rule of thumb is one human for about 100 cattles. So, a farm with 400 kine would probably utilize four people, virtually three-quarters of whose time is spent milking( the rest would be dedicated to feeding, feed production and animal welfare ).
But at FutureDairy each of the kine, once in the dairy yard, moves on to one of 16 milking points on the rotary platform. As the platform gently turns, robotic arms rinse the teats and attach the cup. The milk is extracted, the teats sterilized and the beakers flushed. About eight minutes later the cow steps off the revolving platform and into a yard, where it receives a feed reward before being allowed into fresh grassland. Each cow is identified by a dongle around its neck that electronically records and transmits the time and volume of its last milking.
Sensors on the drafting gates that divide the dairy yards from the pasture automatically read each kine data. Those whove been milked too recently are sent back to pasture instead of on to the robotic milker.
The farmer can control all this remotely: checking yields and production mechanics on an iPad and needing to attend the dairy merely in case of a malfunction, after an automated phone call or text.
Not a single person needs to touch a cow during any 24 -hour milking cycle.