New Dairies and Technology


8 min read

Upgrading your technology Identifying upgrades Work environment benefits General considerations Upgrades summary Identifying your preferred design Sizing the dairy Using labour efficiently Automation Building in flexibility Dairy types Seek expert advice

Building and running a dairy is a significant investment. Having the most updated technologies and systems can have a positive and major impact on milking efficiency and the comfort of cows and milkers. Outlined below is helpful information to help you make informed decisions when building a new dairy or installing new technology, which is no easy task. Spending time to deeply consider your layouts and design choices will save you a significant amount of time and money later on.

The importance of upgrading your technology

Dairy infrastructure can have a major impact on milking efficiency and the comfort of cows and milkers. Upgrading an existing dairy or installing a new dairy are big projects that often require a large outlay.

A decision to change the dairy should be based on a genuine need for improved infrastructure. It should be financially viable and support the achievement of the farm’s goals.

Generally, a change in the milk harvesting system cannot be assessed in isolation from the rest of the farm business. A major upgrade or a new dairy is not 'just a shed' but has implications for the whole farm system.

Ask yourself - is it time for an upgrade?

Identifying if it’s time for an upgrade

The motivation for undertaking a major change may come from a number of sources such as:

  • Current system may be working well but may be too small to cope with future goals, i.e. milking more cows, employing more or less labour.
  • Current system may not be working well, i.e. the milker is idle or flat out, dairy is too cramped, or milking takes too long. In this case it is possible that the extra capacity released by the increased efficiency of a new set up could be used to help generate funds to pay for the investment.
  • Sometimes the motivation for change may be a combination of both - for example, milking may be taking too long and extra income may be needed to cover increasing expenses.

Work environment benefits after upgrades:

  • Reduced Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) risks.
  • Improved attitudes to the milking job and farming in general.
  • More time to spend on management tasks or being able to attract (and keep) high calibre staff to take over the day-to-day operational tasks.

General considerations

It is important to be very clear about what is motivating the desire for a change and to have a focused picture of the farm goals. If the primary goal is to increase disposable income there may be other ways to achieve this without undertaking a major building project.

Not all of a farmer’s goals will be financially motivated but every decision made on the farm has a financial implication. The implications of building a new dairy need to be analysed from many different angles so the risks of financial failure are kept to a minimum and financial targets are reached.

Here are some other things to consider:

  • Will the change be an upgrade or a whole new dairy?
  • Will more cows be required to make an investment in a new dairy feasible?
  • If extra cows are required, what will the impact be on the herd, feed, management, labour, infrastructure and debt?
  • Make sure that all additional costs associated with a new dairy are taken into consideration when doing budgets and plans. These costs can have a major impact on the financial viability of a project e.g., will the existing infrastructure meet requirements of an expanded herd (effluent, fencing, laneways and water)?
  • When getting quotes, make sure you have considered all the required elements of the upgrade, and send the same list of requirements to all potential suppliers to ensure they are all quoting the same job and you can easily compare all quotes.
  • MPI and your milk supply company will have requirements around dairy infrastructure relating to milk quality and collection standards. Before beginning any changes, please consult your milk company.

Upgrades summary

  • All dairy farmers should base their decisions on clearly defined personal and business goals. If you haven’t already defined goals for your farm business, make it a priority.
  • DairyNZ’s Mark and Measure courses are a way to upskill yourself in financial management and goal setting for your business.
  • When planning a new dairy it makes sense to draw up a wish list first. This initial planning is the first step in sorting out priorities. Once the ‘must have’ priorities have emerged, financial analysis of the cost implications can begin.
  • Decisions on upgrades need to be analysed in terms of the impact proposed changes will make to milker and cow comfort - some things may be worth paying more for.
  • Building a new dairy is a big undertaking. Most farmers are not project engineers and have plenty of other work to do on the farm. A project manager is a valuable asset on many dairy construction projects, however it is important to ensure yours is reputable and experienced in all aspects of dairy builds. It is their responsibility to make sure that things happen on time and the desired result is achieved. Also make sure you employ a builder with experience in dairy construction.
  • Visit other farmers’ dairies, preferably during milking, for ideas and feedback on the performance of different products.

Identifying your preferred design

The rotary and the herringbone are the two main dairy designs used in New Zealand. If well designed, both rotary and herringbones can provide a productive working environment that is both cow and milker friendly.

When deciding on dairy type it is important to start by defining what you require from your farm dairy, and then select the dairy which best suits your needs. Around 67% of New Zealand dairy farms have herringbone dairies, while 33% have rotary dairies. Rotary dairies make up the majority of new platform installations and have a higher number of technologies installed (DairyNZ Technology and Workplace Practices Survey 2023).

Sizing the dairy

As the life of a dairy is at least 25 years, when building a new dairy it is important to give a lot of consideration to the size, particularly with rotaries as they do not lend themselves to expansion.

When considering the optimum number of clusters the following should be taken into account:

  • labour efficiency
  • cow numbers
  • capital cost
  • other factors such as personal preference and the potential for increasing herd size in the future.

Planning is important to ensure that you get a dairy which suits the needs of your business and the people in it.

Things to consider

The optimum cluster number in a dairy is dependent on cluster throughput in relation to milker throughput. It needs to be recognised that at the upper limits people are working to a high level of efficiency which they may not be able to maintain. Also that whatever limit is suggested there will be farmers gearing up to exceed it!

Using labour efficiently

Although other critical factors include availability of capital, perception on practical milking times and personal preference, a key driver for dairy size should be efficiency of labour utilisation.

It was once thought that people could only milk about 10 rows of cows in a herringbone without getting tired and also needed to leave enough ‘free time’ to do the rest of the farm work. Now there are dedicated milkers doing little other farm work.

In this situation it is best that milkers are rostered in shifts so that although the milking time may be extended – thereby making more efficient use of capital - individual milkers are not working for prolonged periods of time.

Note that it is still possible and desirable to provide work of varying responsibility and variety to relieve monotony; to help create interest and challenge.

When considering labour in relation to dairy size, think about the following points not only with present staffing in mind but for the future:

  • How many people will normally milk?
  • Will a number of different people milk during the week?
  • What type of labour is available long-term? Skilled or unskilled? Fulltime or casual?
  • How long should the milking take? Is it important for the milking to be restricted to less than two hours? Can the dairy operate for much longer at each milking shift?


The use of automation can have a large impact on labour efficiency and the sizing of the dairy.

Automatic cluster removal and automatic teat spraying on a rotary can remove the need for a person at the clusters-off position for much of the lactation period. In herringbones, it removes the risk of over-milking and makes it possible to extend herringbones to about 30 clusters and still be managed by one milker. Automatic teat spraying in herringbones also makes milking easier.

Automatic drafting is becoming the norm in all large dairies, herringbone or rotary, due to labour savings and stress-reducing attributes.

Dairy Type Maximum cluster numbers*
Herringbone Without automation With automation
1 person 18-22 clusters up to 30
2 people 26-44 clusters up to 50
Rotary Without automation With automation
1 person - 50-60
2 people 50-60 up to 80

Building in flexibility

  • change in farm size and / or changes in herd numbers
  • increases in average production/cow
  • changes in milking frequency, e.g. to once-a-day or 16 hour interval milking
  • availability of skilled labour
  • changes over time in average size of cows in the herd
  • changes in the rate of milking, at different stages of the lactation, in seasonally-calving herds
  • changes to feeding systems in the bail due to automation or increase in quantities
  • distance to the dairy from the furthest paddocks i.e. walking time for the herd. Two smaller dairies rather than one large could be more effective e.g. on a narrow farm milking 1500 cows, it may be better to consider building 2 one milker, 50 bail rotaries rather than 1 two milker, 80 bail unit where cows need to walk a long way.

For a more detailed examination of techniques to use when sizing a new farm dairy see the document below “Sizing a dairy”.

Try to be open-minded about dairy type

Start with your requirements then choose the dairy to meet these. When deciding on a new dairy give yourself time to gather information and advice. Good planning will ensure that you get a dairy which fits all your requirements.

Seek expert advice

With the range of skills needed in developing a new dairy, advice is needed from several different sources. These include: dairy builders, the local authority, milking machine companies etc. In particular, consider the benefit of specialists in milk harvesting who may have a better understanding of the details of design and their impact on cow flow. Allow plenty of time to analyse, double check and test any advice.

Last updated: Aug 2023

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