“It was good enough for my father, so it’s good enough for me!”
I’m sure nobody would be surprised to learn that this quote was the opinion of a UK farmer. The agricultural industry is frequently portrayed as old-fashioned and out-dated, often being told it needs to move with the times and finally adapt to using modern technology.
This summer I was thrilled to be on placement with Joe Peacock, dairy farmer based in the north east of England. As part of the process of taking over his family’s home farm in Sedgefield, he mentioned that he had recognised the traditional milking parlour lifestyle was not sustainable for himself, his family or his staff (I.e. milking 100 cows through a herringbone parlour twice daily). He therefore made the decision to install technology that offers a less labour-intensive option for dairy farmers: robotic milking machines.
Robots replacing people sounded a bit too much like science fiction to me, however, it transpires that robots have been a permanent fixture in the commercial dairy industry since the 1990s, making them older than almost every undergraduate student at university! I was astonished to find that, according to ‘This is Dairy Farming’s article on robotic milkers, such machines were already in operation on 10% of UK dairy farms. Initially modelled on the ‘out of parlour feeders’ used to supply supplementary feed to high yielding cows, the robots consist of a small mechanical pen area which cows can enter at their leisure. A robotic arm then cleans the cows’ quarters, exactly as a human hand would.
But with doubt still in my mind, my next question was ‘what do the cows think’? Manufacturers such as Merlin advertise that the cows are able to adapt quicker than the farmers, but I was still keen to learn what ‘real people’ working with this machinery actually think! Joe Peacock believed that ‘because the cows could be milked whenever, and generally had a much more relaxed lifestyle than when they were pushed through a parlour twice daily, they were much calmer and easier to handle than they had been before’. Therefore, my question was answered: the cows, on Peacock’s farm at least, seem much happier with the robot in place than they were before.
Although the attraction varies from farm to farm, for Joe Peacock, the installation of 2 robots was done as a method to save time and allow him to start expanding the number of cattle on his farm. The installation has been a very successful move in this respect and has had some additional, unexpected positive side effects, with a reduction in the number of mastitis cases (a nasty inflammation of the cows’ udders which would mean the milk could not be sent for human consumption), and a generally higher milk yield within the herd.
There are of course downsides to using the robots, it is a case of working out what is best for the individual farm, your family and your staff. I have had experience milking in a traditional herringbone parlour and this farm is a classic example of one which could not currently afford the milking machines. At installation level, the robots are a hefty capital investment, costing over £100,000 to milk 50-70 cows. On a farm milking 260 cows and requiring 5 robots, this is simply not financially viable as a business investment. Additionally, when speaking to farmers about robots, many are sceptical about how thorough they would be compared to human hands. A robot cannot check the overall health of the cows which leads them to question whether they can really replace the experience of a human. With the number of people turning to vegetarian or plant-based diets on the rise, the other major question is whether we should still be investing time, resources and research in livestock farming or trying to establish a farming industry with fewer livestock holdings.
Although I had many reservations about the potential success rates of robotic milking machines, and whether they could be replacing human hands in the future, I was greatly surprised by the milk yield, quality and overall herd welfare on Joe Peacock’s farm. It is clear that robots cannot do everything a human can, but with careful management and attention they could be the replacement that the technologically minded critics are demanding.