Five star treatment for Camelot cows

By Michelle Nelson

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In the shadow of the Mid Canterbury foothills lies a modern-day Camelot, where something magical is happening - huge super cows are milked by robots, and a dedicated team of humans attends to their every need.

Camelot Robotic Dairy Farm is owned by the Beeston family's Blumoon Trust, and is a place where animal welfare and sustainable farming practices are kept at the forefront of decision making.

At 26, Frances Beeston manages the state-of-the-art robotic dairy farm, home to the Blumoon Holstein Fresian and Triann Brown Swiss studs. She says life doesn't get much better.

The daughter of Bryan and Annette Beeston, Frances grew up with elite dairy cows, and wasted little time thinking about where her future lay.

"I worked on the farm with Mum and Dad when I was a kid. I had pet calves and loved going out at night to check on cows at calving - I always loved the lifestyle," she says.

While Frances briefly considered a career as a vet or a farm consultant, she was aware such occupations were bound to clash with her values.

"My way of farming is not conventional - I need to try to help an animal, whatever it takes.

"I don't think I could cope with farmers deciding to put animals down rather than treat them.

"If I'm not satisfied with a diagnosis I'll get a second opinion, I'll try homoeopathic or any other alternative therapies.

"If something happens to one of the cows I consider it's my fault - and I don't think any life is worth more than another.

"If a cow is paralysed after delivering a really big calf, then that is my fault for mating them with a bull that was too big, or maybe over-feeding them, so I want to give them every option to survive."

An example of her commitment: when a Camelot cow was injured while adjusting to the newly-opened robotic system, it benefited from hydrotherapy at a neighbouring robotic farm - and a seed was sown. Soon, a second-hand cow-bath was established by the calf shed.

"They soak in warm water for a few of hours at a time. The water supports them and their circulation improves without having to be hung up by the hips.

"The water is emptied gradually and they slowly take their own weight."

During the spring, five cows - one from Camelot and four from nearby farms - were in hydrotherapy.

The move to robotic milking was also motivated by Frances' concern for the welfare of her herd, which contains some of the country's top milk producers.

She spent months working on robotic farms in New Zealand and in Australia, looking for design ideas, learning about routines and figuring out what would work best on Camelot, before construction began.

"I love the cows. The better you breed them and the better you feed them, the better they do.

"I'm always trying to improve the line - to breed better animals with better feet and better udders.

"Having spent money to breed better animals and fed and grown them to their potential, you want to make sure they milk to their potential.

"My cows are half as big again as normal cows, and they produce twice as much milk."

Robotic milking allows the animal to take pressure off the udder when it needs to, and as the robots milk each quarter separately, dropping off when dry, the risk of infections and harm caused by over-milking is minimalised.

Giving the cows the option of milking when they choose makes perfect sense. Recently calved cows, milking up to 60 litres, might use the robots four times in a 24 hour period, whereas those about to dry off cut themselves back to once-a-day milking.

Handing the decision over to the cows alleviates the need to run separate herds and reduces stress on the animal.

Adjusting to the robots took the herd about three months.

Accustomed to functioning as a herd, the cows had to learn to act independently and to push open the gates, activated by a microchip on their a collar, before moving into the robot.

"At the start, whenever one cow moved toward the shed, the rest followed - because they expected someone would be behind them driving them up," Frances said.

The unfamiliar sensation of the automatic teat scrubbers and robotic arms moving underneath to attach the cups also took time for some animals to adjust to.

"When we first started we had a lot more maintenance work because the cows were more likely to kick, but they've settled down now."

Frances says cows are clever animals, and food is the secret to ensuring their co-operation.

"Each time a cow comes to the shed, she is rewarded. She gets food in the robot, and goes out on to fresh pasture - it doesn't take long to work out that's a good choice."

The result, according to Frances, is that the cows are more content, quieter and friendlier.

"It's nice when the cows come up for a lick and a scratch - it shows they trust you."

On average, the Camelot cows calve every 18 months.

"Some milk for 600 days. We had one in milk for over 1000 days.

"When you demand a lot from them it can take longer for them to get back in calf. They need time to recover from birthing and settle back down - there's no rush to get them in calf, we don't chop their heads off if they don't get in calf straight away, it doesn't work like that here."

Robotic milking systems have been touted as less labour-intensive than conventional sheds, but this isn't the case on Camelot.

"I don't believe it requires less staff, but it does require higher-quality staff. Because the cows aren't coming in as a herd it's not as easy to spot one that's off colour, you don't see the lame cows at the back of the herd when you're not driving them in.

"I employ people who can read animals, who know when they are in pain or sore - they notice when something's wrong. The sooner you get on to an animal health problem, the quicker it's fixed.

"They don't injure themselves deliberately and, if they kick, it's because they are frightened - I have no tolerance for people who are cruel to animals."

A recently constructed feed pad will make winter easier this year, able to feed 140 cows at a time, clear of the mud.

"It will save the pasture and it's easier on the cows. The bigger the cow, the deeper it sinks into the mud."

The herd is 580 strong and will grow to 600 in the next year, but that is the limit the shed can cope with.

- Hamilton News

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