Going hands-free: Even farm dogs can be robotized

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Just minutes ago, we posted a story about the first U.S. Lely Vector. Today, I read about drones (U.A.V.s, unmanned aerial vehicles), heard about Google’s driverless car on the radio, and came home to pizza warm out of the oven — okay, that last one didn’t require any brand-new technology, just a loving family. 

Even so, my question is where will it end? When I heard about the Vector two years ago, I was shocked something like that could even be economical. But through Europe, Ireland, and Canada, the Vector is operational on more farms each month — with the first in the U.S. last month. Labor is time, and therefore time is money.

We have robotic calf feeders, alley scrapers, feed pushers, tractor drivers, robotic rotaries, activity monitors, and all the corresponding apps to run them from our phones and iPads. Until the Feds shut it down, one Minnesota lake featured drone-powered beer delivery over the ice last winter. We go to great lengths to save time.

Your fridge will soon be able to talk to your cupboards and compile a grocery list. On our farm, gas and propane tanks alert our cooperative when its time to come fill up. But surely more inter-farm nonhuman communication is possible.

Dogportrait of a purebred german shepherd outdoors Taking the cake is this morning’s news out of Australia - their Future Dairy initiative is building a “sheep dog” robot that can fetch cows from the pasture. Called a “DUGv,”  this machine will go far beyond a radio-controlled car (Dairy Unmanned Ground vehicle... see a tiny picture here: https://twitter.com/OneFarmNZ/status/479443379579654144). In addition to coercing the cows that it is time to go to the parlor, the camera-fitted machine can send images back to the farmer, and call out each cow by name — something both my ancestors and science tells us can help bring in the cows, and something my farm dog could never do.

If we have machines to get the cows, milk the cows, monitor for heats, and cameras to watch the calving process without human intervention, we’re talking about a dairy industry with much less human to cow contact time. Based on most dairy producers I know, that is a sad day, whether it is due to automation or employee management that takes them away from the herd. We need to remember that cows do not and should not need us every day. A well-designed system allows cows to perform at top levels without much human intervention. Don’t worry, they still haven’t invented the A.I. robot. But before I speak out of turn, just 15 years ago a great excuse to leave a lame party was, “The cows can’t milk themselves.”

One robot dairy I visited this spring was having all sorts of problems for the first few months. Finally, one day the dealer showed up and told the farmer, “Just get out of the barn for a while!” He did, and, according to both the dairyman and the dealer, things got better fast. That farm is now milking over 100 pounds per cow, milking 4.1X per day, requiring 5 robots on 245 milking cows to allow the cows enough time to milk. 

We say cows like prediction and routine; robots provide both. Humans are too unpredictable. Walk onto any robotic milking farm that’s been running for a few years and you’ll instantly notice how calm the animals are.

For the vast majority of commercial dairies, hands-free is the direction we’re heading. Brush up on those human resource, financial management, and technological skills. The future may take us physically farther from the cows, but all signs point to that being the best way to ensure our operation has a future in dairy farming. 

What will they think up next?

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