Friday, December 8, 2023

Sheep milker looks to future

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Trying to run a small-scale farm economically on the edge of Christchurch amid the creep of high-value lifestyle blocks is a challenge for any farmer.
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But it is even greater for Ian MacDonald and Tanya Whiteford, embarking on running a commercial sheep milking operation. Their highly innovative approach to dealing with those challenges has not only assured the future of his farm business, but earned them the inaugural B.linc Celebrating Success Innovation Award for on-farm design. 

Tipping milking convention on its head, Ian decided the ideal approach for milking his dairy sheep was to visit them in the paddock, rather than have them undergo the traditional trudge their other dairy relatives have done for generations.

His idea to create a mobile milking platform came as much from looking over the horizon of his farm’s future, as it did from present day practicalities.

“We were wanting to milk 300 sheep on a 22ha block that is very close to town, and looking around will probably eventually become lifestyle blocks,” he said.

“I realised I could spend $500,000 building a sheep dairy, only to have the next person come along and put no value on it because they don’t want the land for that reason.”

He reasoned a good option to the usual concrete and steel dairy solution was to trailerise his milking infrastructure, putting the entire system on wheels and make it capable of being trailed around the farm for the once-a-day (OAD) milking exercise.

It also seemed logical to have a movable asset that could be shifted to a bigger farm as the sheep milk market allowed growth.

Tipping convention on its head is not a breach of character for Ian. He has a strong background in animal breeding and has been crossing Lacaune, East Friesian, Awassi and Dorper genetics in an effort to deliver what he describes as a “Land Cruiser” of milking sheep, rather than a Ferrari.

He has gone as far as creating a selection index based on his early efforts in Motueka where Brian Beuke of Neudorf milked Ian’s fledgling flock 2009-2015 through a plant that had milk meter technology on it. This enabled Ian to build a picture of the higher performing animals.

He has also opted for a “wean then milk” approach with his flock, leaving lambs on their mums until weaning at 15kg, and then continuing to milk the ewes OAD.

“It will tend to yield less than the more conventional dairy type approach taken by some of the bigger Taupo sheep milk operators, but we feel comfortable with this approach, and our customers do too,” he said.

But his decision to opt for a mobile milking plant took the operation to a whole new level of pioneering.

New Zealand Farm dairy operational code of practice (COP-NZCP1) is based around dairy cow sheds, with specific requirements managing hygiene and effluent. It did not easily allow for a mobile design.

“I found in some areas the COP was not appropriate for small ruminants. I had to write variations to the code and demonstrate to MPI it could be done through an 18-month validation process,” he explained.

It took four and a half years of problem solving.

First came a “proof of concept” eight-bail machine, then 18 months to the validated 16-bail trailer, and 18 more months for the latest 20-bail iteration.

The eight-metre-long machine has eight innovations that helped Ian get it over the line for the MPI validation process.

This includes an inboard effluent storage and distribution system, where post-milking effluent can be distributed across the farm via a dispersal system controlled by bluetooth from the cab and captured on a field navigation system. 

High quality Norwegian milk vat and chilling technology pulls the milk down to 3°C, even lower than NZ standards required.

The two-vat system on the 4WD truck towing the trailer is the same type incorporated into milking systems used on the Swiss-French border for milking cows.

An efficient Canterbury-built mobile wood-fired boiler heats water to 85°C in two hours for plant washdown after milking.

Between four to five litres of diesel is used by the 22kVh generator per day and refrigeration is plugged into mains power after milking. 

Overall, running costs for the entire system are low and it can be run by one-labour unit.

The 20-bail unit can push through 200 sheep an hour, while also distributing 250g of uncrushed barley as supplement feed via a venturi air-powered feed delivery system.

Overall, he says it was not so much technical problems that presented the greatest initial challenges, rather convincing authorities what he had conceived was possible. 

“We needed to demonstrate we fully understood the ‘fit for purpose’ intent of the code,” he said. “MPI seemed tough at desk-level evaluation but fair in the field having seen the system operating and the excellent validation results.”

Ian installed raceways around the farm for locating the trailer milker, ensuring sheep entry and exit is well-defined, with water pipes handy to supply the plant’s plate cooler.

He admits he is not an engineer, and was happy to engage with well-known Canterbury dairy engineering family firm Read Milking Systems for much of the project. 

University of Canterbury engineering school was also very helpful with student Thomas Frewen completing his masters thesis on the project.

The accompanying truck doubles as a collection point and milk tanker, and Ian can spend nine hours on the road twice a week distributing raw milk for The Sheep Milk Supply Group Ltd. This is to any of six cheese making clients around central South Island that are shared with two other Canterbury families also milking sheep.

“For us the plant is really just part of the jigsaw, and breeding the right ewe to fit our wean-to -milk system is another big part of it,” he said.

“We don’t have plans to make more and sell it. Our job as farmers is to make wholesome food in a sustainable way”.

GlobalHQ co-owner and sponsor of the B.linc competition Dean Williamson said the sheep milking unit stood out for its daring take on what constituted a milking system.

He said the judges respected Ian’s persistent, innovative efforts to get it over the line and help rewrite standards around milking plants.

B.linc communications and events manager Julia Henson said "the 24/7 pasture based system and the mobile unit Ian has worked hard on to make it a reality, was a stand-out entry in the Celebrating Success awards".

"It showed not only Kiwi ingenuity to ensure it was the best investment for his farm, but also creates added value for their products through on-pasture milking.”

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