Robots are taking over down on the farm.
When you next pour milk into your tea or coffee give some thought to how it got from the cow to your cup. Long gone are the days of 'farmer Joe' sitting on his three-leg stool milking his 10 animals by hand. It is now normal to have a traditional parlour and several stockmen milking the cows up to three times a day.
In larger herds there can be upwards of 20 animals being milked at any one time, starting well before dawn and finishing after dusk. Things are changing, however, and on some farms you might be surprised to find no men in the parlour at all, with the cows seemingly walking through when they feel like it to be milked by a robot.
It might sound far-fetched but the technology known as an Automated Voluntary Milking System (AMS) was pioneered by Lely Industries, a family-owned business based in Holland, who first invented the robotic milking machine 17 years ago. They now have over 9,000 robots installed around the world, carrying out over 1.2 million milkings per day. In the UK the latest version of its robot, the Lely Astronaut A3 Next, recently won the prestigious RABDF (Royal Association British Dairy Farmers) Livestock and Machinery award.
When the possibility of robotic milking was first discussed, one of the concerns was that animal would suffer as farmers became less hands-on. The reality seems to be the opposite, as it frees up farmers to spend more time taking care of a myriad of farm duties rather than standing in the parlour for hours each day. It also appears that the majority of cows actually prefer the robot to conventional milking, as it gives them greater choice of when and how often to be milked and a highly reproducible routine.
While there are a number of robotic milking systems on the market from suppliers such as WestfaliaSurge, DeLaval and Fullwood, probably the most advanced is the one from Lely.
According to Ian Tossell, UK sales manager for Lely: 'The A3 Next robot is the fastest milking robot with the fastest attachment time, which means more milkings per day and more cows per robot. On average, the cow will be in the robot for about eight minutes, of which about six minutes 15 seconds will be actual milking time with the remainder spent cleaning the teats and attaching the teat cups and then spraying the teats when the cow has finished milking. The average number of milkings a day per robot will be about 160, although the number can be as high as 180.'
The typical capacity for a robot is around 60 cows, with numbers more than 80 not recommended. As herd size increases, it is possible to install multiple robots the highest currently in operation on a Canadian farm being 19. There are currently around 300 Lely robots in operation in the UK, with sales rising year on year. 'Robotic milking is certainly taking off and in the next few years it will be the norm to not use conventional milking,' says Tossell.
The software control is now so powerful that it can give intimate detail about the milk yield and quality, health status, weight and feed requirements of each animal, allowing advance notice of impending illness or infection. The key to system functionality is each cow wearing an electronic tag which enables the management programme T4C (Time For Cows) to identify her. It makes it simple to collect and analyse large volumes of data about individual cow behaviour and productivity, such as how often they milk or if their weight is falling and they need more food.
The number of visits a cow can make to the robot each day is controlled, as T4C knows how long ago the cow was last milked and her predicted yield. AE Flower-yielding cow may only milk once or twice, where as in a high-yielding animal this could be between four and five times per day. The average on most farms is between 2.4 and 2.8 visits per day, which is best for productivity and udder health. 'We would never want to milk a cow more than five times a day as this can cause damage to the udder,' says Tossell. The allowed number of milkings per day is highest on freshly calved cows and will drop as she goes through the lactation.
The cows have free access all day to the robot if they visit too early, the exit gate will open as the cow enters and she will just walk out again. This is called a refusal and she can do this several times a day, if she wants to, as one refusal only takes about four seconds. 'We would never stop the cow coming into the robot as we want her to be happy and relaxed. She can do whatever she wants in the building giving her total freedom to express herself ' i.e. free-range milking.'
Once the animal steps into the machine, the robust pneumatic arm uses brushes to clean, disinfect and stimulate the udder before the milking cups are attached. The Lely robotic arm is the strongest and fastest on the market with the least number of movements. It has everything built into the arm including the pulsator to control the vacuum action of the teat cup liner, MQC (Milk Quality Control) sensor, vacuum buffer, foremilk device and milk tubes attached to the teat cup. 'It takes its tool box with it so it is not running back to get its tools,' explains Tossell.
Laser scanning detection
Three-layer laser scanning is used in the Teat Detection System (TDS), giving the fastest teat detection in robotic milking. This ensures optimal placement of the milking cups with minimal stress or potential for damage to the udder. Some competing systems use a laser with just one beam and a camera, or even just a camera. The main problem here is that the camera lens gets dirty and can't see the teat. The Lely TDS can still attach accurately when 60 per cent of the laser is covered with organic matter.
A sample taken during the milking process is fed through the MQC sensor, which picks up the colour, conductivity, temperature, bufferfat and protein of the milk. This is all vitally important for the quality of the milk to make sure it's fine for human consumption. It also gives information back to the farmer on the health of the cow and its udder, all with the help of the T4C management program.
The MQC is able to analyse the milk for its quality, percentage of protein and fat, and the presence of water, blood or other impurities. Of particular interest is the Somatic Cell Count (SCC), a measurement of the quantity of white blood cells, used as an indication of reduced udder health or upcoming mastitis infection. If problems are detected, or an animal is freshly calved and producing colostrum, she will continue to be milked but all flow is directed into an entirely separate container, thus avoiding contamination of the milk already in the main tank. Unlike the cell count analysis on competing systems, the MQC is able to determine the cell count on a per-quarter level i.e. from each of the four teats, allowing closer monitoring.
The T4C-3 management software is a new program specifically designed for robotic milking, rather than an adaptation of an existing parlour-based system. It shows Key Performance Indicators (KPI) with dials rather like an airplane cockpit. These are very easy for the farmer to read, with instant information on how the system is running. If there is a problem with something related to the herd, the KPI button will flash red on the computer screen to warn instantly. These warnings can also be directed to a mobile phone or PDA. The farmer can even benchmark the quality or quantity of milk from his herd against other farmers in the UK or across the world.
Another unique feature of the Lely Astronaut A3 Next is the new Gravitor weighing floor. This weighs the cow at each milking, allowing for fluctuations in weight to be monitored and feeding adjusted accordingly. Cows are fed high-quality rations while in the machine, encouraging them not only to come to the robot for milking but also allowing for feeding to be individualised depending upon yield and weight.
This 'dynamic feeding' takes into account the milk yield, feed costs and milk price to determine the optimal feeding rate for each cow. Higher-yielding cows can be fed a higher concentrate feed, with the potential to reduce feed costs over the course of a year.
With all of these positives it is not hard to see that for farmers in the process of building a new milking parlour or refurbishing an older one, the installation of robotic milking is very attractive. Although the costs can be around 100,000 per robot, there can be huge savings in terms of labour costs and increased efficiency. Automatic milking systems are very reliable and farmers generally enter into a service agreement with a local agent to provide support in the face of equipment failure.
On a human level, the system is mainly unsupervised. The farmer only needs to attend the herd for inspection of the animals and to check on any who have not been milked as expected or have produced less yield or substandard milk. The sensitivity of the MQC sensor to problems with milk quality or yield is such that it can often alert a farmer to impending problems with an individual animal before physical signs become apparent.
Whereas once farmers had no need to be technologically astute, more intensive modern farming methods leave them more reliant on computers to optimise their efficiency and returns. The T4C programme provides the farmer with extensive information to allow them to make better decisions about herd management. Far from reducing interaction between the farmer and his animals, it can increase health and reduce stress for both parties.
Advances in technology are also playing a crucial part in reducing costs and increasing efficiency elsewhere on the farm, particularly in the expanding area of 'precision farming'. This uses a combination of GPS mapping and data gained from soil sampling, aerial photography or high-resolution satellite images to look at variability in crop vigour or planting across a field or area. Chemicals that would once have been distributed in a scatter gun approach across a whole field can be accurately delivered to meet the needs of a small area. Not only does this save money and increase yields, but it can help to reduce the environmental impact of excessive fertilisation and pesticide runoff.
Variable rate application technology is gaining in popularity around the world as it becomes more affordable for farmers. The system has a number of components which need to integrate together, namely GPS prescription maps, a spreader, sprayer or seeding implement capable of varying the application rate according to an in-cab controller, and a GPS. Direct soil sampling is often used to produce the maps, with samples being taken from multiple GPS locations around a field. These are tested for nutrients such as phosphorous, magnesium, potassium and pH level and colour maps produced showing the nutrient profile across the field.
Recommendations can be given for the optimum fertiliser application or seed planting density and the data can be imported into farm-based management software or direct to an in-cab controller via a memory stick.
Farm Works, based in Stirling, Scotland, produce a suite of farm management software for the desktop or PDA. According to Phil Templeton, Site Mate VRA allows farmers to use 'maps created in a variety of ways and from many different sources of data, including yield monitor files, direct soil sampling data and electromagnetic soil mapping'. The maps are made up of zones or grids, with each area containing a number or value, which the software sends to the in-cab controller. 'It boils down to being able to target certain areas with varying rates to apply the product more efficiently,' he explains. 'The mapping element will also enable the operator to see any gaps in the coverage as they are driving around the field.'
Combining the company's Trac Mate adds field record-keeping functionality. For example, you can load the map as a 'job' or 'work order' with linked measurable inputs. 'Assuming that the controller has the ability to log a true 'as-applied' rate (i.e. what is actually going out the back of the spreader, seed drill or sprayer), you can then import the finished work order into office software and use it to calculate the cost of the job based on the unit costing of the inputs,' explains Templeton.
UAV adoption slow
Precision farming is also leading to developments in the acquisition of crop density or vigour data, traditionally only available using photography from light aircraft or high-resolution satellite.
UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) were originally developed in the 1940s for military applications and began to be used in agricultural applications in the early 1990s for crop dusting of rice paddies in Japan. Although many countries are investing heavily in UAV technology, much of the investment is still in the areas of military reconnaissance, surveillance and attack. There are several advantages to UAV use, but development of agricultural applications has been slow mainly due to restrictions in their operation in controlled airspace in many countries.
UAVs with onboard RGB, thermal imaging or infrared cameras have been used to map crops to identify areas of poor vigour or planting, or irrigation system status. The Draganflyer, from Canadian company Draganfly Innovations, is a radio-controlled helicopter with either four or six rotors and is designed to carry wireless video and still cameras. It has been used to good effect in the Californian vineyards for frost detection, allowing measures to be put in place to prevent crop damage which can reduce yields by as much as 50 per cent.
One of the biggest advantages is that the Draganflyer can get very close to a crop or specific location and pinpoint areas of interest. Whereas full-size aircraft would need to maintain altitudes of a couple hundred metres, the Draganflyer UAV can fly five to 10m above the ground, giving much greater detail and accuracy.
One of the fastest growing uses of GPS technology is auto-steering tractors. Steering guidance simply shows a driver on the GPS screen where to steer to ensure that passes across a field are parallel and at the spacing required. A further enhancement is automatic steering, which relieves the driver of having to concentrate. It allows farmers to plant crops more closely by eliminating the 'slop-space' needed by even the best farm machinery operators. It is particularly useful in irregularly shaped areas, areas without tramlines from previous planting or at night and during poor visibility.
How long will it be before we find our farmers answering emails in their auto-steering tractor cab while it variable-rate fertilises their land, robots milk their cows and a UAV flies overhead taking photographs of their crop planting and vigour? Just ten years ago much of this would have been a fantasy, but for an expanding group of forward thinking farmers it is now very much a reality!