The Rise of Robotic Farming
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From the gravel country road, the Spencroft Holsteins' farm looks like a traditional farmstead. Cows graze in the fields, crop machinery is parked neatly outside the barn and a couple of dogs bask in the sunshine watching cars travel by. But looks can be deceiving. Despite its conventional appearance, this Elmvale farm houses the latest in cutting-edge agricultural technology. Inside the barn, a state-of-the-art robot milks the cows.
“It's a pretty cool set up,” confesses Allison Spence, age 30, as she shows off the family dairy farm, with the help of her dog, Casey, to a visiting reporter. “The technology is just so amazing. People get such a kick out of watching that robot milk the cows.”
Fully operational since February 2014, a new barn was constructed to accommodate the high-tech robotic dairy. The free-range barn is rectangular in shape with the Lely robot housed in a square room in the centre. Cows wear tagged collars, which are scanned by the robot as they enter the milking stall. If the cow needs to be milked, the robot entices the cow with grain (Spence calls it candy) and the milking process begins. After cleaning the cow, it attaches the milking apparatus, which it locates with lasers. When milking is complete, the cow is once again cleaned and sent on its way to relax or eat in the barn or (in coming months) outdoors in a five-acre field.  
And if the cow doesn't need to be milked? “She can still walk through the milking stall, but the robot won't feed, or milk her. So, she'll just mosey through and try later,” explains Spence, who is dressed in brown farming overalls, work gloves and a T-shirt. A gold cow pendant hangs around her neck.
  A cow can be milked once every four hours. “You'd almost think some of our girls wear watches,” laughs the young farmer. “They seem to know right down to the last minute when four hours have passed.”
All cows are different. Some like to be milked twice a day, while others enjoy six milking sessions a day. The farm average is about three-and- a-half per day, with an average production of 40 litres of milk per day on the herd.  
The milking robot is a welcome addition to Spence's family, who have run a traditional dairy farm at this location for three generations. The original family farmstead dates back to 1918, when her great-grandfather cleared the land. Owned and operated by Allison's father, Roger, and his two brothers, Roy and Doug, the Spence family has three local farms including the robotic dairy farm, a traditional dairy farm, a large beef farm and about 3,000 acres of crops. “We're a 100-per-cent family farm and everyone pitches in to help out,” she explains. Her brother, Robert, also works on the farm full-time.
Investing in high-tech  farming was a decision her family made carefully. “Our 35-year-old tie-stall barn was broken down, too small and needed to be replaced. We had to make a decision — either go big, or get out.” The family decided to build a robotic farm, and the entire investment was over $1 million.
The Spence family isn't alone. Robotic or automatic milking systems are increasingly becoming popular on Canadian dairy farms. According to a report released by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, producer interest in this new technology has grown steadily since the first North American robotic milking conference was held in Toronto in 2002. The first robotic system was installed in Europe in 1992, and in North America, in Ontario, in 1999.  
In Ontario alone, there are about 218 farms with robotic milkers, which is about five per cent of Ontario dairy farms, according to George McNaughton, Dairy Farmers of Ontario director of operations and regulatory compliance. And that number is steadily increasing. In Simcoe County alone, there are about four robotic dairy farms with more on the horizon. Spence estimates that number will grow to about 15 over the next five years.  
For the record, Manitoba is the North American leader with seven per cent of their dairy farms using robotic milkers.
After watching several relaxed cows pass through the robotic milker, it's clear that the cattle have no issues with the beeping space age machinery that milks them. “It took the girls about two weeks to get comfortable with the robot,” she explains. “After that, it was business as usual. The cows are just rocking along now, and they are all happy as bears.”
The robot is on duty 24/7, but shuts down four times a day for 30 minutes to clean itself. One robot can manage a herd of 60 cattle. The Spence farm has about 50 cattle, and the robot is working most of the time. “It's only inactive about 15 per cent of the time,” she estimates.
And if there's a problem, the robot calls. “We get a telephone call from the robot about once a month,” she explains. Problems could include anything from a cow kicking off a milking hose to a mechanical issue. “Most of the time, we just need to go in and press the reset button.”
When the robot breaks down, getting help isn't a problem. “Lely, the company that manufactures the robot, offers great service. Nine times out of 10, they can solve the problem quickly over the phone, and they also offer speedy on-farm service calls.” Lely also supplies a detailed manual and posts several YouTube videos showing farmers how to fix common problems.  
Increased flexibility is the number one reason why farmers make the switch. “Our family and social life have improved dramatically because we aren't tied to the barn for set milking times,” she explains. Before the robot, the cows had to be milked daily at 5:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. There was no flexibility. “Growing up, my dad missed all of our sporting events because they were always held during milking times.”
 Now, things are different. This year, Spence's parents (aged 55 and 56) were able to take their first weeklong destination vacation because less staff is required to run the farm. The traditional system required three full-time people to milk. Today, only one person is needed on-site to do the chores and everyone pitches in to help out.  “Thanks to the robot, we don't have to miss family dinners, kid's hockey games or anything like that.”
It also makes the business more financially sustainable because it frees up time to farm the crops and allows Spence to have an off-the-farm job in the agriculture business. “I love cows, so all of my jobs have been cow related,” says the young farmer who also works as a cow semen salesperson. “Some people have hobbies — cows are my hobby. It's just my thing.
”A robotic farm also cuts back on the physical toll that farming can take on your body. “I can manage all of the chores myself if I need to,” she admits. “Most of the heavy physical work, such as lifting has been eliminated. Robotics makes farming life much easier.” Robotic farming can even include automated feeders.
The cows are also happier, healthier and more productive. “Life is pretty comfortable and stress free for them,” admits Spence, who knows all of the milking cows by name. “And that's important to us because we love our cows.”
At the robotic farm, the cows can wander freely, relax on straw-covered mattresses and can get milked whenever they want. The robot also proactively monitors milk quality and herd health. For example, if a cow has mastitis or hasn't been milked within a certain time period, the robot will send out an alert. “I'm constantly on my iPhone checking the status of our cows,” she admits. The farmer can even send a message via her iPhone telling the robot to direct the cow into a private stall for further examination if a health problem is indicated.  
All of these features are important to dairy farmers, who can now look forward to a new generation being interested in staying involved, eventually taking over the farm. “It's definitely the future of dairy farming,” she admits.
Speaking of the future, the Spence family plans to purchase another robot and move their second herd of 40 cows into the robotic barn. “Right now, we just call the robot ‘robot,' but that will definitely change when the second one arrives. We'll come up with fun names to tell them apart,” she says with a smile.

•Prep. Time 20 mins
•Cooking Time 30 mins
•Yields 4 servings

Our dieticians' favourite!
A hearty make-ahead salad ready for lunch.

1 cup (250 mL) milk
1/2 cup (125 mL) water
3/4 tsp (3 mL) dried oregano
1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt
1/4 tsp (1 mL) pepper
1 cup (250 mL) quinoa, rinsed
Grated zest of one lemon
2 Tbsp (30 mL) lemon juice
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 sweet pepper, (any colour), chopped
1 English cucumber, chopped
1/2 cup (125 mL) diced red onion
1 cup (250 mL) drained, rinsed, canned red beans
1 cup (250 mL) diced Canadian Feta cheese

In a deep saucepan, combine milk, water, oregano, salt and pepper. Bring to boil over medium heat. Stir in quinoa. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Let stand covered 5 minutes. Transfer to bowl. Stir in lemon zest with fork; let cool. Stir in remaining ingredients.


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