In five years’ time, more farms will be installing robots than new parlours.
And in 10 years’ time, a parlour that requires men to milk in will be as archaic as that Nokia 3310 in your clutter draw.
This is purely my opinion, but an opinion that I strongly believe and indeed hope happens, for the future prosperity and sustainability of our great industry.
Robotic milking systems have been in the UK for over 20 years now but have had a far less successful uptake than in Europe, with 5% market penetration. Compare this to Denmark and the Netherlands, where 70% of new installations take place, but there are a fewer factors that come into play.
Why in the next few years will we see the boom? For me it all comes down to profitability. The innovators with robots have ironed out the errors in the system, so farmers and the wider industry now understand what is expected and what is possible with robots. The technology is getting better and better, leading to more reliable performance and a lower cost. A robot now costs not much more than the tractor parked on the yard, so, although a significant investment, it is much cheaper than it was 15 years ago.
I also believe we are going through a period of flux within the dairy industry. Since quotas become irrelevant 15 years ago, we have seen a mass exit of producers, consolidating with mass expansion in herd size. Over this time, fuelled by ambition, business growth and economic survival in some cases, herd sizes have grown exponentially. This, along with other factors has led to increased land prices, rents and other production costs, such as carrying slurry and silage longer distances. To this extent, farms are reaching a saturation point, where herd expansion is no longer feasible. Combine this with increased environmental pressure and in many instances, putting another shed up and milking more cows is no longer the answer. Once we get to this stage, the natural alternative is to look at increasing margin per unit of output, so robotics come in to play. It is very plausible that a farm will reduce cow numbers, adopt robotics and see an increase in profitability. Although robotic milking is not ideal for herd sizes over 500, (yet) they work well under that level, so with the average herd size less than 200, they will suit most farms.
Robots do not reduce labour requirements enough to justify a robot on their own, but what they do create is a desire for more skilled staff. I see this as a great opportunity for the dairy industry to thrive post Brexit. Instead of needing plane loads of eastern European cup attachers, we as an industry will attract talented, intelligent and technically minded people, that can work sociable hours in a nice working environment, thus competing with other industries for labour. It is a far more attractive industry for technicians, herdsmen and farmers children to enter with robot units, being able to use their tech skills, business acumen and stockmanship skills, instead of living life in ‘The Concrete Coffin’ that is a parlour pit. The welfare of cows on robot systems is also superior, which is a big marketing advantage for the industry.
Ultimately, the reason that robots will increase in popularity is down to people. The cows will stay the same, the technology will mainly stay the same, but the decision makers within businesses are changing. People are far more tech savvy than they used to be, most farmers check Snapchat and Twitter every hour, so for them to check their milk output and robot standing time will be second nature. We trust and understand the technology far more now and there is also a wider understanding of robotic systems and how to best achieve profitability using them throughout the industry. With any innovation, you have people that lead and people that follow.
In some areas of the country, we are already seeing the effect of critical mass within robotics. Once enough people have them, instead of relief milkers, we will see relief robot people that can look after any alarms that may go off. We are also getting to the stage where the market is big enough for competition to come in and drive prices for the equipment down. All of this is leading to a more accepted norm of robotics, with the wider industry catering for the specific needs of robotic farms.
Profit achieved and workload influences almost every farmers’ decision on what investments to make or system to employ and, when all things considered, whatever the system, robots often come out on top, irrelevant of scale. Robotics also make milking cows more appealing to sheep and beef farmers entering the industry, where scale may not be an option. Remember, when people moved from steam ploughing to tractor ploughing, output went from 3 men being able to do 20 acres per day, to 1 man being able to do 3. Do you see many steam powered ploughs these days?! Size isn’t everything when it comes to innovation.
The robot revolution has started and will snowball. It is an exciting time for the industry as it has a chance to adapt and innovate, becoming more sustainable, attractive to workers and ultimately more profitable.
Dairy Technical Specialist (Midlands)
m: 07876 824314