Social Side of Robotics Won Over Vine Family

Social Side of Robotics Won Over Vine Family

by Madeline Schultz,

“It is all about the cows, our decisions are made first for the cows,” shared Symone Vines. She explained she was sure the local community thought they were crazy when she and her husband, Phil, installed robotic milkers on their farm. Shortly after starting up there was an economic down turn in the dairy industry. The cows are happy with the robotic system and that makes Symone and Phil happy. “You do not lose contact with the cows, now we are more social with them in other ways,” adds Symone. It all made economic sense too.

Symone and Phil Vines of Victoria, Australia discuss their robotics system for dairy cattle.Five years ago, Symone and Phil purchased a 117 hectare ( 289 acre) farm and began operating the Vines Family Trust Dairy. The Vines are a busy farm family with four children ages 3 to 18. Symone works in foster care and Phil manages a nearby 400 hectare (988 acre) dairy farm. They have a lot of faith the dairy industry and the community will pull through tough times. 

Needing to replace their farm’s 50-year old herringbone milking parlor, the Vines visited dairies in other regions of Victoria. When they saw how content and healthy the cows were in a robotic system, they were won over. Symone and Phil made the strategic decision to invest in technology for cow comfort and profitability.  

Dairy farm employees are difficult to find and typically earn around $25.00 per hour. Today, Symone and Phil are pleased they can manage their 300-head of Holstein cows with less than two full-time equivalent workers and four Lely robotic milkers. The new milking shed required a smaller footprint than other types of milking systems. That saved construction costs and gave them more room to grow grass. In addition, the Lely system is energy efficient and utilizes solar power to save costs.   

As Symone and Phil were busy building their new milking system in 2016, the price of milk dropped significantly due to global oversupply and unfair pricing schemes. The 2016 Dairy Farm Monitor Report for Victoria¹ reported dairy farmer’s average farm gate milk price declined by around 11% from the previous year. This translated to a 70% fall in average earnings before interest and tax.A dairy cow grabs a bite to eat.  

The Vines made adjustments and carried on. They stay focused on risk management and innovation to succeed in a challenging industry. “We are feeding based on our budget so we are not breaking any production records,” stated Phil. The couple understands just how important controlling costs are in an uncertain marketplace.

Sorghum, oats and barley are raised on the farm to supplement the rye grass pastures. The Vines calve their herd in three intervals, each three to four weeks long, throughout the year. This ensures a year-around milk supply and helps them manage breeding and calving costs. Symone and Phil use genomic technology to increase herd productivity and sell export heifers. “The genomic predictions are pretty accurate,” asserts Phil.

Symone and Phil remain on the lookout for innovative opportunities. There is growing interest in dairy-beef feeding. The couple is considering breeding some of their Holstein cows to beef bulls to serve that market niche. Another consideration is adding agritourism and agri-education to their farm business. Thousands of visitors travel along the nearby Great Ocean Road each year and there is a growing tourism industry in the region.

While the Vines are optimistic for the future of their farm and the future of the Australian dairy industry, they recognize the concerns and hardships. Low milk prices, high input costs, difficulty finding dairy farm employees, and the loss of dairy farms across the state and nation are worrisome. When they moved to their farm, there were around 270 kids in the local school; now there are now under 100. “Farm families are leaving the community,” explained Symone, “On our stretch of road there were 20 dairies, now there are only a handful.”



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