Robotic milking: We can’t hold back the tide of progress

I was asked to speak at a farmers’ meeting in Co. Longford some months ago, ostensibly to discuss my then recent visit to China.

But, as so often happens, events took a turn in a slightly different direction after me mentioning that a neighbour of mine had recently installed a milking robot. Immediately, all talk of China was put to one side and the entire focus of the conversation that followed turned to the ‘pros and cons’ of robotic milking.

I said then, and I still hold firmly to the view, that robotic milking has come of age. It is totally proven under commercial farming conditions. People who think otherwise are pretty much deluding themselves. For my sins, I milk 60 dairy cows in south Co. Tyrone. And I would have a robot installed in the morning, but for the fact that I rent the farm.

However, I could take you to at least 20 farms within a 10-mile radius of me on which robots have been successfully installed over the last decade. These businesses comprise a mix of production models, from year-round confinement to those committed to securing the maximum level of output from grazed grass.

On all of these farms that I have an association with, the decision to invest in a robot was taken in order to reduce the drudgery and hard work associated with milking cows while, at the same time, giving those running the businesses more time to think strategically.

Dr. Temple Grandin, from the University of Colorado, is one of the world’s leading animal welfare specialists. She recently characterised the key benefit associated with robotic milking as that of giving farmers an opportunity to use the time that is freed up in ways that will bring about the better management of their businesses – as a whole.

She takes it for granted that the robot is more than capable of physically milking cows efficiently time after time – after time. And Grandin is absolutely correct. Robots don’t get tired; they always carry out the milking process to a meticulously high standard and, for good measure, they represent a super highway of information where the performance of each individual cow is concerned.

They can also be programmed to dump milk from antibiotic-treated cows for the required period of time. There is no need to spray udders with red marker; nor is there any need to get concerned as to whether or not withdrawal periods have been fully adhered to.

Dairy cows at rest during Lely’s robotic milking display at Balmoral 2017

Lely, for its part, has shown a lead over the last number of years in profiling the benefits which robotic milking brings to the party. The company’s ‘in vivo’ robotic milking demonstrations at recent Ploughing Matches and Balmoral Shows reflect its commitment to the cause and its absolute determination to put robotics on the map, where dairy farming is concerned.

At first glance, this could be deemed a risky strategy. Taking cows away from their home environment and having them milked in front of large audiences and the ensuing excitement this generates could make them a bit nervous of themselves.

Yet, any time I visited the Lely stand at the recent Balmoral Show the cows seemed very at ease with themselves, either lying down, feeding or quietly waiting their turn to be milked. It struck me quite forcefully at the time that the only constant in the lives of the cows was the actual robotic milking unit.

Every dairy farmer will tell you that cows are very edgy creatures. They like a constant routine, in every sense. And any disturbances will, almost certainly, lead to a drop in milk yield. So I thought it more than significant that Lely’s Balmoral cohort had actually increased their daily output while at the show. And this was achieved without any change being made to the ration they were fed.

I know that many dairy farmers prefer the option of putting the clusters on their cows manually. They feel it gives them that up-close contact with their stock. And everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, I get the feeling that in 20 years’ time, robotic milking will be the norm and we will all look back, pondering the question: what was all the fuss about in the first place?