What dairy farmer wouldn't like an extra vat of milk a year?
That's what one estimate suggests many may be wasting through incorrectly storing milk due to human error on farms.
Under the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) code of practice, milk needs to be cooled to under 10C degrees in four hours from the start of milking. Then it has to reach lower than 6 degrees before six hours or within two hours of milking finishing.
It needs to remain at that temperature without freezing until it's collected by the tanker or by the time of the next milking – and mustn't go over 10 degrees in subsequent milkings so there's no risk of bacterial growth.
Around 18 months ago, Fonterra introduced on-farm milk vat monitoring systems (MVMS) to improve collection efficiency and collect vat data for milk hygiene. The MVMS measures not only volume but whether milk entering the vat and inside it is too warm. Farmers can also see the power status of the vat and if the agitator inside isn't working.
But some of the 2000 farmers who already had dairy technology company, DTS's Vat-Man Light system installed quickly came back to the Hamilton-based company for more.
"They wanted us to take some other pain points away," says its chief executive, Gavin Thwaites. "Someone still had to remember to turn on the vat cooling and agitation."
There was always a risk this could be forgotten in the rush of milking which could result in milk being downgraded or rejected, both at a cost to the farmer: "If they're turned on too early, the result is an ice block in the bottom of the vat which also degrades the milk. So we listened to their concerns."
The answer DTS came up with was Vat-Man Auto, which it says is the only product with an automated and integrated vat control box. German radar technology was used as it has greater accuracy than other methods of measuring milk volume. Through the use of a temperature probe in the vat pocket, Vat-Man Auto will turn on both cooling and agitation at a level pre-set by the farmer, meaning one less thing to be remembered.
The milk temperature can be easily seen on a display unit on the outside of the vat, from where refrigeration or agitation can be over-ridden in an emergency. There's also a very visible clean-in-place (CIP) button which tanker drivers can turn on to wash the vat.
There are a range of other advanced monitoring features which can be viewed by the farmer or their staff not only on the screen in the milking shed pit, but on other devices such as a smart phones, desktop computers and laptops. These include notifications that milk has been collected, or if this hasn't happened at the usual time, along with vat washing.
There was a soft market release of Vat-Man Auto late last year with demand picking up in January and February. Now there are around 50 of the systems installed throughout the Waikato.
"There's been a very positive response and numbers are starting to ramp up now," Thwaites says. "It's all about working smarter, not harder."
That's particularly the case when it comes to large corporate farming enterprises where an operations manager uses technology to check collection times on a number of different farms. They can also cast their eye over milking duration and look out for any abnormal milk volume.
That all adds up to giving them a full understanding in real time of what's happening on different properties, which can be some distance apart.
"If you don't measure, you can't monitor and if you can't monitor, how do you make decisions?"
The cost is $2000 per installation which Gavin says takes away the risk of a rejected or downgraded vat of milk, which some estimates put as high as one for every farmer, every milking season.
"We're addressing a known risk to remove that impact point," he says.
It's hoped other dairy companies, who have already shown an interest, will also adopt the technology soon. With the present labour shortage in the dairy industry, which Thwaites doesn't see going away any time soon, he believes automating tasks wherever possible makes absolute sense.
Based on the experience of farmers already enjoying Vat-Man Auto he expects a quick uptake next season.
"Farmers are going 'Wow, it's living up to our expectations and making life easier'."