More than 1,000 robots
By Patrick Meagher
WOODSTOCK The prognosticators called it. The 21st century would see the rise of the machine. And were seeing it. The bugs might still be in the driverless combines but not in the robotic milkers.
There are now 450 farms with robotic milkers in Canada milking 50,000 cows, reports CanWest Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI). Exact numbers are elusive, but almost half of Canadas farms with robotic milkers are in Ontario. OMAFRA says roughly 175 to 200 of Ontarios 3,918 dairy farms have robotic milkers, up from as few as 30 farms only five years ago.
Last year, robotic maker Lely alone hit the 1,000 milestone for installations in Canada, said Lelys Canadian sales manager Tony Brazda. The first DHI sampling on a robotic milker was only 15 years ago.
The robot has come a long way. The first robotic milker introduced to North America was back in 1999, the last year that Wayne Gretzky played NHL hockey. That first robot was unveiled at a Plattsville dairy farm, east of Woodstock, where Stefan Arkink installed two robots from the get-go.
By early 2000, there were 20 robotic milkers across North America. It was the year Christian Lafleche installed Eastern Ontarios first robotic milker. He worked 100-hour weeks to transition his cows to the two Lely models at his Ottawa-area farm.
Lafleche installed a third robot in 2005 and recalls the biggest challenge in 2000 was adapting to a new way of managing the barn and his cows. For years he was getting calls from robotic manufacturers in North America and Europe because “we were the guinea pigs,” he said. Companies picked Lafleches brain for new ways to improve the product.
And now, after 15 years, Lafleche is replacing his three now-outdated robots for three of the latest Lely model A4s in a large new barn hes building next door. He expects to be milking his 150 head with the latest technology sometime this month and is counting on faster milking times and more production.
But not all stories are happy ones. The robot was not a good fit for Arkink. He pulled them out and went back to a parlour. His two robots were sold to an Eastern Ontario dairy farmer, who used them until he upgraded to the latest Lely models two years ago.
The Eastern Ontario farmer re-sold his units North Americas first robotic milkers to a Quebec company that buys used robots to re-fit and sell as milkers for tie-stall operations.
As many as 10 per cent of early installations were ripped out. Some blamed glitches in the machine. Others called it poor management. There were other issues. Some farmers bought into the idea that one robot could milk 75 cows and that didnt happen. Today, the ratio is about one robot for every 45 to 50 cows.
“The magic number is 50,” said Lafleche, who recalled starting out with 65 per robot. When he realized that wouldnt work, he began cutting back. The cost for a robot 15 years ago was about $200,000 and is the same today but with more advanced technology, “more options and gadgets,” Lafleche said.
In the early days, some farmers werent prepared for the necessary attention to computer software. Sometimes cows wouldnt co-operate. Many cows feared the cabin-style milking room that has since evolved. The barn setup has been re-configured for better cattle flow and the robotic arm is a lot smarter about attaching cups to teats.
The future continues its march toward bigger and better. Today, farms tend to install two robots at a time. The North American robot king is Quebecs Ferme Landrynoise east of Montreal, which has 22 Lely robots. But hes not the world champion. Farmers Forum found a New Zealand farm with 24 DeLaval robots.
Lafleche, 56, said his decisions have always been made with a vision for the future. Being the robotics guinea pig was never a concern. His philosophy? “Dont dream your life. Live your dream.”