About 120,000 Kiwis start work before 6am, about 5 per cent of our workforce. This series, with Fonterra, salutes the ‘Early Risers’ and ‘Early Adopters’, whose technological and other smarts keep NZ dairy farming in the global forefront.

Greg Gemmell is a rare man - a dairy farmer who doesn't get out of bed at 4.30am to milk the cows. His robots do it for him.

What's more, he believes he is one of the pioneers in new technology that will change the face of New Zealand dairying.

"This isn't common now," says the Bunnythorpe farmer who, with wife Amy and farm owners Margaret and Brian Schnell (Amy's parents), have invested just under $1 million into three Lely Astronaut robot milking machines and a cowshed renovation and retrofit. "But I'll bet it is in about 10 years - it's a life-changer."

Gemmell's herd - he calls them "free range cows" - make their own way to milking. Nothing unusual there - you can see cows heading for the milking shed under their own steam up and down New Zealand.


But what is unusual is that the cows are untouched by human hand. They enter the robot milker by themselves, standing patiently while the machine fits the cups. Individual cows come to be milked between once and three times a day, Gemmell says, and many come during the night, between 10pm-3am, when he and his family are tucked up in bed.

Their 220-cow herd and 82-hectare milking platform farm (with an additional 52 hectares of dairy support land) are already showing the benefits after only nine months of operations.

Incredibly, Gemmell says it took only about three days to train the cows: "It took three people to get them into the robot at first. We had someone rubbing their backs and that was all it took. They lapped it up after that and now we don't need anyone there with them.

"They are happy cows - we have tours through here and other farmers say to me, 'man, your cows are so quiet, how do you do that?'"

The system works through a transponder round the neck of each cow. It recognises each individual ("even if a cow is a three-teater, the system will recognise that animal and will only attach three cups," says Gemmell). It also processes an astonishing amount of data on each cow, enabling better animal and farm management.

But before getting into the detail of the robots, their amazing precision and the benefits, let's look at what made Gemmell embrace robotic milking.

"It was a lifestyle thing," he says. "We always tell people it was a bit of a joke to start with. A dairy farmer's life is hard work and we joked we'd get some robots in to do it. Amy said, 'right, I'll follow it up' and it kind of went from there.

"Thing is, I used to do about 90 hours a week quite often. I've also been working on concrete in the milking shed for 25 years - and I thought another 20 years on concrete just would not be healthy.


"Long-term, I have three young sons coming through and, if they are interested in carrying on [with the farm], this gives them the opportunity to do it another way rather than being down in the pit for six hours a day, for 25 years or more."

Instead, says Gemmell, he uses that six hours to do many other tasks round the farm, like pasture management and stock management, feeding out or feeding the calves. It also gives him more time to be a father and husband as well as a farmer, attending Ripper Rugby and soccer matches with sons Flynn and twins Hadley and Ronan.

There are other more business-oriented reasons for robotic milking:
• More milk - with the cows encouraged to come to milking when they want with the incentive of the feed, the farm is producing more milk even with fewer cows.

• Better pasture - the system also incorporates a pasture management system which ensures better grass. Better and more grass also means more milk.

• Smarter management - the data collected by the robots monitors health issues, measuring weight, rumination (the cow chewing its cud), activity, fat and protein levels, milk production, milking speed and frequency and can even monitor elements which point to common cow maladies. "We can find out who the good cows are and how we need to improve others - and we know a cow is going to be sick even before the cow knows," says Gemmell. "You can get this data on your desktop or your phone and anywhere in the world."

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