Stage 6 agriculture offers an opportunity to develop knowledge and understanding of the essential aspects of agriculture from the farm to retail outlets and exports.

Students study the connection between production, processing and consumption, and the scientific principles of the processes between inputs and outputs. A study of agriculture improves awareness about how to maximise productivity and environmental sustainability.

The following resources can be adapted by teachers to suit the individual needs of their students.

Plants in agriculture

Plant breeders from Sydney University describe some of their work including the development of double haploid wheat, production of tomato varieties adapted to drought and heat, research methodology using wheat breeding as the context and the use of integrated pest management in controlling crown rot in wheat.

Students are provided with questions and answers that assist them to understand the HSC agriculture syllabus content and a glossary is included.

Watch a series of videos on plants in agriculture.

Animals in schools

Advice is provided to help schools be compliant with all animal welfare legislation as well as being an educational resource for both teachers and students.

Visit the animals in schools website today.

Raising the steaks – the science of cattle breeding

This video explores the tools and techniques that are available to beef cattle producers to use in their quest to improve the productivity of their herd.


Watch raising the steaks – the science of cattle breeding video (23:18).


Dairy farming into the future

The video documents the whole milking process in a robotic dairy. It includes an interview with Associate Professor Kendra Kerrisk describing the process and explaining the reasons for its development and use.


Watch dairy farming into the future video (13:54).


Assoc. Professor Kendra Kerrisk, Future Dairy Project Leader

Universiry of Sydney

Robotic milking was primarily developed for small European-based herds, and the idea was that it would allow farmers in those types of systems to allow cows to have a higher milking frequency without negatively impacting on the farmer’s lifestyle.

If you imagine trying to fit three milkings into a day, there’s going to be at least one of those milkings happening at extremely unsociable hours. The cows in those systems generally are not limited or the production is not limited by the nutrition or the genetics of those cows, but more by how often the milk is removed from the gland. So the increase in milking frequency allows those cows to produce more milk.

In Australia, that’s not so much the case, except for some of our higher-producing systems. The key reason for farmers adopting the technology in Australia is more from a labour and lifestyle point of view. In comparison to other farming systems around the world, labour in Australia is very expensive, and, in fact, in many rural areas, it’s very hard to source and to retain labour.

One of the aspects of robotic milking that’s particularly attractive is that, even if labour is not an issue, the process of milk harvesting is very time-consuming, and if we can automate that process or the majority of it, it frees farmers up to focus on other aspects that might improve the productivity of his farming operation.

In particular, that might include pasture production, it might include the nutritional management of the herd, also things like the health of the herd, the reproductive performance of the herd, all aspects that often can be compromised a wee bit, because the farmer simply just doesn’t have time to do them better than what he already does.

Globally, there are in excess of 14,000 farms operating with robotic milking. In Australia, currently, there’s 36 farms operating, but that’s really starting to increase now. Our first farm commissioned back in 2001, and it wasn’t really until about 2008 that we started to see a little bit more uptake.

The concept behind the robotic rotary was really as a high-throughput robotic milking system. Previous to that, the commercial robots that were available were what we call single-box or multi-box robots. And the idea with the robotic rotary was that it could milk many more cows per hour which would better suit our larger farming operations in Australia and make the capital outlay more competitive with conventional milking systems.

Some of the key aspects of robotic milking that are different to conventional milking, firstly, that it’s a voluntary milking system, so meaning that the cows bringing themselves for milking, they’re milked by the robots, and then they take themselves back to the pasture without human encouragement. Also, it’s what we call distributed milking, so it happens 24 hours a day as opposed to a conventional system where, typically, cows would be milked in the morning and then again in the afternoon.

The other thing that’s really particular to robotic milking is that it is what we call incentive-based. So if we give the cows everything that they need out in the paddocks, so plenty of food and water and shade and shelter and herd mates and ask her to bring herself home for milking when she wants to, typically, she will not come.

So when we talk about an incentive-based system, food is the key incentive that works for every cow every day, and we allocate the food, the daily food requirements of the herd, across a number of paddocks. And typically, it would be three paddocks. When they deplete one of those paddocks, they would move out of that paddock and head towards the dairy in search of another paddock. And when they get to the dairy, she’ll go through a drafting gate, which either sends her into the dairy for milking before she can gain access to that paddock or she’ll be released directly to the paddock if she’s already been milked.

So as the cow comes into the dairy, she’s wearing a transponder, which is really important, and transponders can be either around the cow’s neck on a collar, it could be a specific type of ear tag. There’s a number of types of systems, but, essentially, what that is it’s an electronic identification of the cow. So the system knows who the cow is and can make decisions based on that. And those decisions will influence things like where she’s drafted when she progresses through any of the drafting gates. It will also influence the decisions made for milking and also the data that’s captured and recorded against that cow’s identification and association with that milking event.

The cow steps onto the platform and is progressed around the platform in a step-wise fashion, or a stop/start fashion, and that’s to allow the robots to deal with the cow that’s in front of them and to back out, and then the system rotates one more step. The cow will progress past four robots at the beginning of the milking session. The first of those four robots will clean the back teats. So it’s using a cleaning cup circulating warm water and air around the teat and stimulating the teat which encourages the cow to have a let-down and also removing the first five mils of milk from that teat, which is discarded because that’s the highest bacteria count milk from the cow. The cow then progresses to the next robot, which cleans the front two teats.

The next robot that the cow comes to is the start of the milk harvesting process. So, that robot will collect two milking cups, take those in underneath the cow, and attach those to the rear teats. The last robot that the cow comes to is primarily focused on putting the milking cups on the front two teats. If the previous robot didn’t get both back cups on, the last robot will make up for that and put one of those cups on before progressing and putting the front cups on.

Essentially, each robot is dealing with half a cow. That means that each stop/start or step in the progression is quicker than if it was dealing with a whole cow. The cow progresses around the platform, and the milking takes place. As each quarter is milked out, that cup is automatically retracted or removed from the teat. What this means is that we don’t under-milk or over-milk any individual quarters, so the cow will be progressing around the platform, and she will go from having four cups on, down to three cups on until all of the cups are off and the milking is completed.

Robots operate with what we call a quarter-based milking system. What that means is that the milk from each quarter is kept separate and passed through a series of sensors. Those sensors collect a host of data that is reported back to the farmer through the software management aspect of the system. The information collected during the milking is also available to the operator if they happen to be in the platform or in the milk harvesting unit.

Because primarily people are not present for the milking, it is important that the system is monitored remotely. What this means is that, if there’s any issues or anything that requires human attention, the system will auto-dial or auto-ring whoever’s on call. So that, all throughout the day and night, if there are any issues, the people are informed and can respond in an appropriate way. Sometimes, that response might involve the farmer logging in from home and checking the system and having a look at who’s on the platform, how milking is progressing for individual cows, or the farmer might need to attend the farm and intervene in some way.

When milking is completed and the cow has progressed to the exit area of the platform, her teats are sanitised with an iodine-based spray to reduce the risk of any infection. As the cow exits the platform, the platform is rotating, and there’s a water spray and a scraper that’s cleaning the deck, cleaning away manure so that the next cows that are coming on are coming on to a relatively clean deck. At the same time, the milking cups that were taken off that cow are flushed with cold water to reduce the risk of any cross-contamination of mastitis between cows, but also just to remove any manure that might’ve come onto those cups at the end of the milking process.

The feed stations that the cows progress into after milking act as a bit of reward for the cow. More or less to say ‘Thanks for coming.’ ‘Come again tomorrow.’ But, on top of that, it’s an important part of the feeding system for the operation.

So in a dairy farming system or a pasture-based system, cows can’t get all of the energy they’re required to produce the volume of milk that their body is driven to produce on grass alone. Most farmers would be inclined to offer the cows a energy-dense grain-based concentrate, which boosts their energy and helps to support that pasture-based diet. In this system, the grain-based allocation is trickle-fed to the cow, so just small volumes of feed are put out at a time. And the cow has to stay at the feeder and be eating for it to continue to trickle-feed.

The importance of that is that if another cow bullies her out of her feeding station that there’s not a big volume of feed left there. We can be much more confident that the feed that’s being allocated to an individual is actually being consumed by an individual. When the cow has finished feeding or finished her allocation of concentrate, she would then make her way through the remainder of the dairy, progressing through a number of drafting gates which can draft her to various areas of the farm. Which in particular at different times of the day the cows will be sent to a different paddock. It can also draft her into a holding pen if the farmer wants her kept for something special. You know, maybe she’s having priority treatment at the moment or she’s being sent to a different paddock so that she’s got a different feed allocation.

And from wherever the cow is sent, she makes her way out to the pasture and stays there basically until she’s depleted that feed allocation and decides to come back to the dairy for another try. The reality is that, depending on how the farmer adopts the robotic milking, it can have a significant influence on the economic viability of the business, though. If he saves a lot of labour, that may increase the profitability of his operation. There will also be some aspects that become more expensive.

For example, power consumption or electricity consumption because the operation is operating 24 hours a day. Also, things like the repairs and maintenance of a technology like robotic milking are likely to be significantly higher, just as it would be more expensive to service a Mercedes compared to a Toyota. It’s a change in technology, and it is important that it’s well maintained.

Robotic milking doesn’t have a direct environmental impact. Any indirect impact is likely to be because the farmer has shifted their focus from milk harvesting to other aspects of the business which might improve the efficiency of the operation. From a social aspect, the impact of robotic milking is much more significant than some other areas of the operation.

Because milking becomes a background operation, it’s conducted 24 hours a day, there are no milking session times that we would normally have with conventional milking. So the whole concept of having a morning and afternoon milking no longer exists with robotic milking. From an animal welfare point of view, robotic milking is quite appealing in the respect that the cows choose when to milk themselves, they choose when to make their way around the farming system, they can do things at a pace that they’re very comfortable with.

There’s nothing to stop a cow from standing in the laneway and chewing her cud for half an hour if that’s what she chooses to do on her way to the dairy. It really is a system driven by the cows and occurs at cow pace. There can even be opportunities for the cows to avoid other individuals in the herd or to go to the dairy or conduct different activities during the day with a selected group of cows that they choose to hang out with, if you like. From an animal welfare point of view, another advantage of robotic milking is that the amount of data and information that’s collected and provided to the farmer creates the opportunity for the farmer to better manage his herd and to focus on aspects that might otherwise be compromised depending on the farming system. Some of the information that comes from the sensors and the data collection can alert the farmer to early indications of disease that otherwise would not be picked up until the cow becomes clinically ill.

By focusing on tasks that are likely to have a bigger impact on productivity, the farmer can improve the whole farm system performance, the efficiency of the operation, and, at the end of the day, improve the sustainability of their business, thereby improving the sustainability of the Australian dairy industry. Robotic milking will play its part in the viability of the Australian dairy industry, ensuring that local farmers continue to put the milk on your Weet-Bix and the cheese on your pizza.

[End of transcript]


Please note:

Syllabus outcomes and content descriptors from Agriculture Stage 6 Syllabus (2013) © NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales, 2021.

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