If images of picturesque rural settings and grazing sheep come to mind when you think of farming today then think again. IT has revolutionised this industry in regional Victoria where dairy farmers are using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, handheld devices and robots.
The Northern Herd Development Co-operative Ltd (NHD), which provides support services for farmers such as milk testing and artificial insemination, has just completed an RFID pilot involving 15 farmers to streamline the process of collecting and testing milk samples.
The project is the first of its kind in Australia and will be rolled out to thousands of farmers in coming months with NHD appointing a full-time trainer to familiarise farmers with the new technology.
Information contained on the tags identify the cow, provide herd details, a genetic background and productivity history.
Each cow has a lifetime identification number that is read with a Texas Instruments' scanner and its data transmitted via a wireless LAN to a Symbol Technologies' handheld device.
The tags are located in the cow's ears and the information is matched to a barcode on the lid of a sample flask of milk which is sorted by a robot in the NHD's laboratory and synchronised with the Maestro database.
This automation practically eliminates human error and farmers can rely on the process to give them an accurate picture of their herd's productivity and milk quality.
Project integrator, Icon Global general manager, Craig Porte, said the high level of innovation the local industry is adopting has won the attention of international dairy producers and farmers in the Netherlands are seeking to implement the solution.
Locally, Porte said, farmers have embraced the technology although some producers did find it daunting in the initial proof-of-concept phase 18 months ago.
He attributes the enthusiasm to the fact that the previous manual system was so tedious and labour intensive.
"Farmers had to manually take a milk sample from a cow and place it in a crate in correct order so the cow and sample matched. They relied solely on visual cow identification so if the cow moved the farmer had to relocate that particular cow by sight to avoid mixing up the samples; this was often done in the dark in the early morning hours or early evening," Porte said.
Victorian dairy farmers have been able to undertake the RFID pilot with the support of the federal government.
Acknowledging the high cost of the chips which has contributed to the slow uptake of RFID tags in some industries, Icon's Porte said the project was able to go ahead as a result of Commonwealth grants made available under the Dairy Regional Assistance Program.
Porte said Australian cows have been wearing the tags, which were issued under the government's National Livestock Identification Scheme, for years.
"You may have seen cows running around with these tags in their ears, but then the government didn't provide any infrastructure so they were never used. Basically, there was no where to send the information although the deadline for all cows to have identification tags was June 2003," he said.