Robotic Farming

Technology. With a device that fits in my pocket, I can access information from around the world in a few quick seconds. I instead choose to use that technology to watch this parrot video, repeatedly, giggling every time.

Like all other aspects of human life, technology has infiltrated farming too and it is really cool (as least, I think it is).  From robotic milking parlours for cows, automated feeders for pigs, hydroponics for vegetables or combines accurate down to the half inch for harvesting corn and soy, technology, robotics and automation are now a major part of how many Canadian farmers grow our food.

Despite the fact that 2.1 million Canadians work in food and agriculture, only 2% of Canadians are actually farmers (I got these numbers from Farm and Food Care’s latest issue of “The Real Dirt on Farming“.  It is a great resource and I strongly recommend you skim through it if you’ve got some time!).  This means that fewer people need to raise and harvest more food, and the best way to do that is to rely on technologies that can help us meet those demands.

For many livestock farmers, automation comes in the form of barn controls.  Chickens, turkeys and pigs are happiest when their barn temperature and humidity is kept within a certain range, so farmers will have their ventilation systems programmed to acceptable ranges (a comfortable 22°-25°C for laying hens usually, higher for young pigs and chicks and lower for meat chickens and turkeys).  If the sensors in the barn sense that the temperature is out of the acceptable range the barn alarm, which is usually connected to a farmer’s cell phone, will go off and the farmer will either be able to correct the settings from their phone or go to the barn to adjust it manually.

The average Canadian egg farm has nearly 21,000 hens  and most of those birds will be laying an egg per day.  That’s a lot of eggs to collect by hand, so many farmers will have egg conveyor belts to bring the eggs to one end of the barn, and then an egg packer machine to put the eggs onto trays to be sent to market.  This video from How It’s Made shows how eggs are collected on a farm using robotics and how eggs are graded to go to market in a grading facility. The video is a little blunt and mentions that at the end of the flock cycle, the hens are sent to slaughter.  Increasingly, some farmers are opting to humanely euthanize all of their birds on their farms instead of sending them to market, as the birds have very little meat and it is not high quality, so the payment is not always worth the time, labour and stress to the birds required to get them to market.

Dairy farms are also seeing a lot more automation, and I think they have the coolest robots.  Dairy cows need to be milked 2-3 times per day and the average Holstein cow (the black and white ones, for you city folks) can produce around 34L per day. Obviously, this takes a while, so having robots that can do the milking at 4am instead of humans is wonderful. Cows will walk into the milking machine, a robotic arm will clean their teats and then a laser will guide the milker onto their teat.  Cows will often wear radio tags on collars, in their ears or on theirs legs that will let a farmer know how much time they are spending eating, lying down, milking, sleeping, and if anything is out of the ordinary, a farmer will have all that information and can determine if there is something wrong with the cow or the feed.  Bloomberg did this great video of a Manitoba dairy farm that had converted entirely to a robotic system and now didn’t have to worry about staffing shortages while also having their cows be more productive. This farm is a lot bigger than the average sized Canadian dairy farm, but it is a great example of robotics in action.

Lastly, robotic harvesters are becoming very competitive with using humans for harvesting. In both Canada and the US, a lot of crops, particularly fruits and vegetables, rely on temporary foreign workers coming in from Mexico and other parts of Central America to collect fruits and veggies for sales. This is a huge socio-economic situation that I don’t feel confident enough to wade into, but gist of it is that the more robotics involved in harvesting food, the fewer migrants needed to be brought in for that (which has benefits and flaws in and of itself). Searching “Robotic Crop Harvester” on Youtube takes you down a rabbit hole of hundreds of videos gathering all sorts of different crops.  Some of my favourites from that search are this one for carrots, this cherry harvesting video (almonds are harvested the exact same way), lettuce harvesting in California and this prototype for a strawberry harvester.

Not every farmer has the capital to invest in these kinds of technologies, and that’s ok.  As they become more popular, the cost of the machinery will likely continue to decrease and newer innovations will likely make these robotics even more efficient.  With fewer people wanting to work on farms, I think automation and robotics is going to be a huge factor in feeding the planet going forward.

 

I know the cover photo at the top of this post is not quite a state-of-the-art tractor, but it is incredibly hard to find a free photo of any robotic farming equipment, so I had to settle for a very pretty picture instead.

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