Toward a fully automated future

by Andy Bryenton

The home of the future — which was already supposed to have arrived, according to mid-20th-century science magazines — was to have been a fully automated paradise, where robots catered o our every need, from washing the dishes to walking the dog. And while robotic lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners are here, the rest seems to have been delayed, like the hover car.

On the farm, however, technology innovator Lely has pushed the clock forward. For several years now the European farm machinery company has been in the business of creating fully automated milking systems — robotic dairy hands for the 21st century. 

These machines don’t look like a metallic humanoid with a pair of buckets, though. Each Lely ‘Astronaut’ automatic milking unit takes the form of a red and silver booth, just the right size for a dairy cow. And there’s the key to their efficiency — it’s not the automatic arm which attaches the cups, or the monitoring equipment which can accurately track each individual cow’s health. It’s the fact that a battery of Astronaut units mean the cows themselves set the schedule.

Being milked on their own timetable understandably makes the herd happy, and happy cows are more productive. But Lely’s good ideas don’t end there. 

With individual cows being analysed one at a time, it’s possible to ensure milk quality down through a range of variables, detect mastitis and deal with it early, and even improve the efficiency of artificial insemination programmes. The robotic system acts not just as a milking machine, but also gives each cow a health check every time they come to the shed. Information is fired across the net to a mobile app for the farmer’s convenience.

Lely has brought this technology to fruition already, and there are farms in New Zealand that have made the switch successfully. With options to fine tune the system for better yield, improved herd health, feed cost reductions and more, this may very well be the way all dairy farms are run in decades to come. Those who have converted say that the initial investment cost is soon recouped, and Lely provides comprehensive training and post-installation care to get the most out of each robot.