The world’s first commercially operated robotic rotary dairy can be found in Tasmania, on a property run by the Dornauf family.
But this leading farming family may not be in the industry at all if not for the generosity of their neighbours.
Share and share alike
Family patriarch Ian Dornauf says the business of today is a far cry from where he and his wife Jenny started more than 50 years ago.
“I was a credit manager and Jenny worked in a bank. We didn’t know a thing about farming,” he says.
“We were lucky because our neighbour really helped us out and shared a wealth of knowledge,” he says, and he knows how much of a difference that made.
“People said I wouldn’t last four months,” he laughs.
While this experience was decades ago, Commonwealth Bank’s latest Agri Insights research shows farmers are still keen to support each other by sharing their production insights.
The Dornauf business is now run by Ian and Jenny in partnership with their son Chris and his wife, Lyn. The next generation is coming through, too, with Ian’s grandson Nick and his partner Rebekah running the robotic dairy.
“With each new generation there’s been a burst of expansion,” Chris says.
The business includes four properties with a total of 1800 cows and produces 13 million litres of milk, which goes mostly into the domestic market.
Chris and Lyn had their own opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ a few years ago when devastating floods destroyed one of their neighbours’ herds. Chris and Lyn were among a group of farmers who donated cows to help their neighbours get back on track.
“There’s a lot of community support in the sector,” Chris says.
High tech dairy
The robotic rotary dairy was launched a couple of years ago. It was a big investment and a big risk, but Nick and dad Chris both describe their farming philosophy as conservative.
“But ultimately farmers are risk-takers,” Chris says. “We researched it for five years before we went ahead. It’s not that scary if you know you’ve done your homework.”
In traditional dairies, all the cows are brought into the dairy to be milked on a schedule, but in the robotic dairy, they can come in when they’re ready.
The robotic system offers the Dornaufs a lot of data they can use to improve their operations.
Electronic tags keep track of which cows have been milked and when, and how much they’ve produced. Inside the dairy, the cows are milked automatically, and as they leave a series of smart gates can direct them where they need to go – for instance, any cows requiring veterinary care can be diverted to the farm’s hospital pen.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though.
“If we knew at the time how big the challenge would be, we might not have done it,” Nick says, recalling the early months of being woken by automatic notifications every time something needed checking or re-setting.
Nick’s mum Lyn says the robotic dairy has succeeded because everyone pulled together and pushed through, a trait she says comes straight from Ian.
“Ian and Jenny have always been incredibly hard working and they've passed down that work ethic,” she says. “In this family, we all bring different things to the table. We learn as we go along and we’re tolerant of mistakes and we have absolute trust that each person is working to improve the business.”
Nick says credit for making the robotic dairy work belongs to the whole family.
“It would have failed if we didn’t have the support of the family. We could only work hard because they did. We were so focused on the robotic dairy that they had to manage the rest of the business.”
After five years, Nick says the robotic dairy is working very well and has met expectations. "We now have a greater work/life balance and have been able to move our focus and attention onto the next challenges," he says.
Find out more about the latest Agri Insights survey here.