Bungaree dairy farmer Mark Trigg with Gekko's Richard Goldberg in front of the Gaia plant. Pictures: Adam Trafford

Bungaree dairy farmer Mark Trigg with Gekko's Richard Goldberg in front of the Gaia plant. Pictures: Adam Trafford

Robot dairy becomes self-sufficient

Next step: robot dairy farm becomes self-sufficient

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This prototype energy plant is making sure nothing is wasted.

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People often talk about using every part of the animal - there's a farm just outside Ballarat that's taking this to new levels.

Using a combination of state-of-the-art technologies, the Trigg dairy farm in Bungaree could soon be almost fully self-sustainable, using manure to generate electricity.

The dairy already uses a robotic system to automatically milk 350 cows - each has a microchip implanted, and when a cow feels it's ready to be milked, it approaches a crush which scans the chip.

The cattle are kept warm and sheltered in the massive barn.

The cattle are kept warm and sheltered in the massive barn.

Suction cups are attached to teats with a robotic arm, which also disinfects and cleans the equipment, while the amount of milk is recorded digitally, providing valuable data on each cow down to each individual teat.

Farmer Mark Trigg said all he and his team had to do was clean up after the cows and maintain the robots.

"It does cell count, so the white blood cells, and that gives an indication of mastitis and whether we have to draft her off and check her," he said enthusiastically.

"That does a report on the computer, we can bring it up - it's amazing how much information we've got."

A robotic arm automatically attaches suction cups as the cow enters the system.

A robotic arm automatically attaches suction cups as the cow enters the system.

However, keeping a robot dairy going takes a lot of electricity.

About five years ago, the farm installed a huge shed to keep the whole herd undercover - there's shade and fans for the summer and dry space for the winter.

All the manure is pushed out of the shed by large scrapers in the floor - that's then collected and processed, and that's where the giant green Gaia Envirotech biodigester setup comes in.

Solid matter is removed, and that becomes fertiliser - it's spread on the paddocks which now grow feed for the cows, or sold on for more profit - but the gas is broken down and cleaned by microbes.

Gekko's Richard Goldberg and farmer Mark Trigg in front of one of the robots.

Gekko's Richard Goldberg and farmer Mark Trigg in front of one of the robots.

That's a Ballarat innovation from mining equipment company Gekko, which is branching out into the energy-from-waste space.

The Trigg farm Gaia system, which is self-contained within a stack of bright green shipping containers, is a prototype the company is using to test out some new tech, including a generator.

Gekko's innovation and collaboration manager, Richard Goldberg, said it's a pretty simple system once you get the balance right.

The camera helps guide the robot arm, and gets scrubbed clean automatically after each cow.

The camera helps guide the robot arm, and gets scrubbed clean automatically after each cow.

"In layman's terms, you put the raw material into the system, there's the bugs in there that break it down into simpler parts, there's a few processes there, then another process called methogenesis, where other bugs make methane gas, that's what we capture off the top - that's effectively carbon dioxide and methane, or natural gas, and you burn that in a furnace for heat, or special generator for electricity," he explained.

The Trigg system is calibrated for cow manure, but Mr Goldberg said research is underway for different feedstocks - Gekko is working with Food Innovation Australia Limited on ways to reduce wastage from food production lines, like cheese, and create a cheaper source of electricity for factories, based on research conducted in Ballarat.

Manure is first processed in the shed on the left - solid waste is collected and spread over paddocks as fertiliser, while everything else is fed to biodigesters in the Gaia system to produce electricity.

Manure is first processed in the shed on the left - solid waste is collected and spread over paddocks as fertiliser, while everything else is fed to biodigesters in the Gaia system to produce electricity.

"A lot of the existing systems for biodigestion need to be really big to be commercially viable - that's why it's a modular and low-cost design," he said.

"It allows people to put these systems locally and scale them to what they need, there's a lot of potential and versatility."

Mr Trigg said the generator, once fully hooked up, could power about 50 per cent of the cow shed and robotic dairy's electricity needs, which is promising.

Inside the modular system, the methane gas can be used for heat, electricity, and more.

Inside the modular system, the methane gas can be used for heat, electricity, and more.

"We're producing good gas and clean gas, the next step is producing power," he said.

"It's got to be profitable to be doing it, you don't want to be spending all day trying to generate power when you could be buying it."

"It feels good with energy prices soaring - anything we can do to reduce that cost is a benefit for our operation."

While the Triggs have been growing potatoes and dairy farming on the land for five generations, a lot of work was needed to optimise the process - this is why the cows are in the sheds, with fans and automated back scratchers, while the amount of manure produced is just enough to be viable for energy production.

"To have a system like this that allows us to have a digester, where a conventional dairy can't collect enough manure - we need the volume to go through," Mr Trigg said.

The huge barn features lights, fans, automatic back scratchers, and scrapers for the manure.

The huge barn features lights, fans, automatic back scratchers, and scrapers for the manure.

"You'd have to house your cows, otherwise you've got no way of collecting manure, [but] now cows are out of the paddocks so we can grow 300-400 tonne a week [of fodder], we can grow a hundred acres of maize for the cows, with silage, and the potatoes as well, there's a fair rotation happening now.

"There's probably other industries that could get more benefit out of it."

As well as self-sufficiency, Mr Goldberg said he is also proud of the system's green credentials.

"There's other income streams you can get - renewable energy credit you can get, and it's also eligible for carbon credits," he said.

READ MORE: Ballarat's Gekko Systems wins IOM3 award

"As a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide's not good, but methane is more than 20 times worse.

"So even just flaring methane instead of releasing it out of the cow, even if you capture it the way we are and flare it, you improving greenhouse gases by 20 fold, you're reducing it."

The story Robot dairy becomes self-sufficient first appeared on The Courier.

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