Sector trends

Robotics in the dairy sector

Rachael Watson, national agriculture director at Lombard Asset Finance, explores how robotics and automation are helping dairy farmers meet their future challenges head-on.

All farmers have to think about how they want to run what is often a family business, particularly with the next generation in mind. But when you mix in the effects of climate change, population growth, Brexit and questions about how we feed a growing population, those future challenges are greatly exacerbated. Then you need to factor in the rapid advances made by technology.


While adopting new technology involves a dramatic step-change from traditional processes and methods, the benefits are clear. Over the past five or six years in the dairy industry, we’ve seen a rapid increase in the use of automation as one means of helping farmers manage more effectively some of the other challenges that are coming down the line.

Milking, feeding, cleaning machines

Many farms have established robotic milking processes and begun to realise its benefits. For starters, it gives the cows more freedom because they can control when they come in to be milked. Also, conventional milking is both time-consuming and physically demanding for the farmer – traditionally, it starts at 5am and finishes at 8pm. The robotic system removes both of these issues for the farmer, along with the unreliability of labour.


We’re also seeing more robotic feeding. Automatic feeding means that cows are fed with precision – you can define exactly the right ingredients needed to feed each group of animals, including beef cattle. This has a positive influence on feed efficiency, and the development and production of your animals.

Instead of spending five hours a day milking, you’re using that time looking at udders, hooves and the general health of the cows, which is time better spent.

Rachael Watson
National Agriculture Director, Lombard Asset Finance

Then the other area, which is just starting to take off, is robotic barn cleaning. Obviously, cows generate a lot of mess in the dairy unit, and farms are deploying little robots to roam around the floor, cleaning up as they go. Only a small percentage of cows are initially spooked by the robot and a bit nervous, but they settle very quickly and will then move out of the way when they see it coming. It is definitely less disruptive than going in every day with a scraper tractor.


Ultimately, automation is dramatically reducing the time farmers, and herdsmen, spend milking, feeding and cleaning. But this doesn’t mean you no longer need your herdsmen. There’s a myth that if you go robotic, your herdsmen disappear. However, there is a large animal welfare dimension to going robotic, part of which is about cows being fed and milked when they choose, but the other aspect is that you’re freeing up your herdmen’s working hours to attend to the welfare of your herd. Instead of spending five hours a day milking, you’re using that time looking at udders, hooves and the general health of the cows, which is time better spent.

Accurate data for precision performance

The other advantage automation brings is real-time data on individual cows and systems so farmers can measure their dairy performance more accurately. It’s never been easy for farmers to gather accurate data, but this technology enables them do so, which helps them meet the requirements of the milk suppliers.


We still see people using traditional parlours, and robotics is not necessarily the right approach for every farm. Some farmers don’t like the technology, but a lot of innovative and forward-thinking farms are moving to automation. And it’s being driven by several different factors – efficiency and animal welfare being the main reasons.


We’re also seeing farms adopt automation where the farmer has sons or daughters who want to come into the business but are saying they don’t want to spend six hours a day milking. Going down the technology route allows the next generation to use their time on the farm differently. We also see farmers without a new generation coming through who are thinking about their own age. While they don’t want to lose the cows from their farm, they are concerned about their ability to milk them five hours a day as they get older. Installing robotics is extending their ability to work in dairy for longer.


Many farmers recognise that to stay ahead in farming they have to look beyond traditional methods and think outside the box. They want to know how they can be more profitable and more efficient, and that’s where robotics comes into its own.

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