By Connor Lynch
SEAFORTH — Robots are a big deal on dairy farms today. For some farms, installing a robot is what ensures that one of the kids will carry on the family business. For others, a robot is a necessity of married life because it offers more family time. Robots are popping up all over the province, and farmers have sung their praises till the cows came home.
But every rose has its thorn, and so it goes with the robotic milker. Farmers Forum spoke with 10 dairy farmers who’ve had robotic milkers for at least a year. We asked, “What’s the least attractive thing about them?”
Almost without fail, the answer was the same. Robots require farmers to be on call to fix them 24/7. Farmers Forum found that a farmer gets on average a phone alert once or twice a week per robot. Most farmers can deal with the issues themselves, sometimes right from the phone and within a few minutes. Even when they can’t, help is only an email or phone call away, even if it’s 3 a.m.
The good news is that an alarm on their cell phones usually goes off during the day. But there’s no consistency to how often a robot will gripe. Based on our interviews, farmers got emergency calls that woke them up at least once every five weeks to the worst-case scenario of once a week. For most farmers, the phone calls were more of an irritant than a real problem, and to be fair, the other benefits of robots more than made up for them.
But one farmer had such a rough time with the constant calls that he ended up taking his robots out and going back to the old milking system. Gerhard Ritzema, who milks at Seaforth, west of Kitchener in Huron County, told Farmers Forum that the robots were bugging him so much that he got rid of them. Ritzema had six robots go into the barn in November, 2013. By November 2015, they were cleared out.
“They don’t send people to tell me how good robots are anymore. I hate those things with a passion,” Ritzema said. “I never had a better day than the one I had when the robots were gone.”
He was getting calls in the middle of the night as often as three times a week, sometimes more than once a night. “It was little minor things, hoses off, (cows) kicking teat cups off. Stupid stuff.”
Constant maintenance costs just added to his frustration with the machines. But the biggest problem was the lifestyle change, one of the most touted features of the robots. “They say with robots your lifestyle gets better since you’re not attached to (the farm). We milked three times a day in the old system. With robots I was never done.”
The other farmers that Farmers Forum talked to said that they hadn’t had too many issues with the robots and enjoyed what they brought to the operation despite the occasional midnight call.
Joe Terpstra, who put in six robots about three years ago at the farm in Brussels in Huron County, said that the robots have been a lot less annoying since the cows have gotten used to them. “When we first started, it seemed to be worse than it is now. Now it’s mostly (you get an alert) if you have a fresh heifer come in wanting to kick stuff.” The robots have terrible timing, Terpstra said; they either wake him up or interrupt him at church.
Brad Hammond, who’s milked with two robots for the last two years at his farm at Ingersoll, said that his issues with the robots come in fits and starts. “You’ll have a week with three calls, then have four or five months with nothing.” The worst issue he had with the robots was a vacuum pump issue in the spring. “It called every hour for 20 hours straight until we finally figured out what’s going on.” The robots help out in the field as well, letting Hammond get away from the barn to get a crop in or out.
Woodstock-area dairy farmer Adam Garfat said that his monobox milker, installed in November 2015, only calls once a month, although it usually ends up calling during the night. “Most of it I can fix from my phone in five minutes,” either by resetting the robot remotely or just clearing the alarm, said Garfat. “It’s the same as anything. It works when you’re around and then when you go it gives you problems.”
He hasn’t yet had an issue with the robot that couldn’t wait until morning to be fixed, and even a parts problem hasn’t had the robot down and out for more than two hours, he said. Night calls are a rarity; Garfat has only had to text his technician twice during the night, and both times he’s gotten a response inside of five minutes.