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.


Biosecurity: Why I Can Never Own a Parrot

My aunt and uncle got a parrot as a wedding present (the full story from my aunt is at the bottom of the post). When I was a kid, I thought that was probably the best possible type of wedding present and I always wanted someone to give me a parrot when I got married. I really like parrots in general, I worked in an exotic animal zoo for a summer and there was a parrot there who took a real shine to me, yelling “HELLOOOOO” at me when I came in in the morning, and serenading me with his renditions of “Old MacDonald” throughout the day (it was mostly just him yelling the “E-I-E-I-O” part over and over again).

The problem is that I now work with farm animals, chickens specifically, and for the health and safety of the birds I work with, I’m not allowed to own parrots.

Healthy animals are the most successful.  Just the same way someone with the flu won’t get out of bed and go to work, a sick animal will grow slower, make less milk or lay fewer eggs. On top of the production aspects, most farmers are just good people who don’t want the animals they care for to be unwell. Instead of treating animals when they are sick, it is better to prevent them from getting sick in the first place.

Biosecurity is the process of taking steps to prevent animals from catching diseases which could harm them, the humans who care for them or the food supply. This can be as simple as changing your clothes between different farms or can be as complicated as having a shower ever time you enter or exit a barn and having scheduled days off between different farms. A lot of these preventative measures can be likened to the way nurses and doctors will disinfect tools and scrub up before a surgery, to prevent a patient from getting an infection.

There’s a lot of different ways a biosecurity program can be implemented and just about every farm I know of has some sort of plan in place.

With poultry and pigs, farmers will often use “all-in/all-out” systems, where all the animals are grouped together by age and will arrive into a barn at the same time (either be hatched at the same time in the case of chickens and turkeys or be weaned from their mothers at the same time in the case of pigs). This has quite a few benefits – all of the animals are at the same life stage, so they can all be cared for the same way but also with no new animals coming in, there is a dramatically decreased risk of a new animal arriving and bringing an illness with it.

Humans can also be a vector that brings in diseases, not necessarily with the people themselves having an illness, but by having small amounts of pathogens on their bodies, clothes, equipment or vehicles that can affect the animals. The treads on boots can pick up mud and manure and then if those boots are worn through a different barn, there is a chance that they can spread diseases to the animals in the different barn. Most farms as a result have barn shoes that are exclusively worn in the barn, as well as a boot dip – a pan of water mixed with some sort of sanitizing agent that you must step into with both feet before you go any further into the barn.

Vehicles like feed trucks or livestock hauling trucks can be another carrier of disease pathogens because they go around to multiple farms.  Every time a livestock truck is used, it is cleaned and then disinfected thoroughly before it is used again.  When a vehicle arrives at a farm, there is usually a sprayer with a sanitizing agent in it at the foot of the driveway that is used to spray off the wheels, wheel wells and undercarriage of the vehicle before it comes any closer to the barn.

Even the design of a barn takes into account biosecurity.  Animal feed will come from one end of the barn, while manure will be cleaned and removed through the back of the barn. This decreases the chance of the food for the animals being contaminated with any bacteria, fungus or viruses that may be waiting in the manure.

Now in North America, it is almost spring time (finally!) and with that, migratory birds are starting to come back up to Canada and the US.  These birds will be bringing new strains of illnesses like avian influenza (AI) with them and there’s a risk that domestic poultry around here could get sick from it. Here in Ontario, there was a nasty AI outbreak in the summer of 2015.  The Canadian Food Inspection Agency website has a great timeline of events if you want to look at all the details, but the gist of it is as follows:

In early April 2015, a flock of turkeys was found with AI and within a week that farm and the neighbouring farm had been put under quarantine and the affected farm had all the birds euthanized. An Avian Influenza Control Zone was set up around the farm, meaning that no hatching eggs, day old chicks, or young birds (poults) were allowed within that 10 km radius. This was particularly tricky because part of the 401 (a major cross-province highway that stretches from the Quebec boarder to the US boarder with Detroit) fell inside the quarantine zone. As a result, livestock trucks with birds heading from one end of the province to the other would have had to get off the 401 and go south of the highway until they were past the quarantine zone. By mid April, a second farm, this time a meat chicken farm, had been found to have AI as well. While AI is not passed through properly cooked food and is not often caught by people working with sick birds, it can be devastating to a flock of birds, quickly making almost all of them sick and die.  When the second positive farm was discovered, some of Canada’s international trade partners had to be notified of the outbreak and all poultry producers were encouraged to increase their biosecurity programs. Fortunately, once the affected barns had been emptied and cleaned out and a waiting period of 21 days with no new cases appearing, the quarantine zones around the affected farms were lifted and normal travelling routes were resumed. Because AI is so contagious and devastating, as soon as an outbreak is found in Canada, farmers are notified so that they can help protect their flocks.

For my job, I’m not allowed to own parrots or other livestock because my employer does not want me to carry a pathogen from those animals to the animals I work with.  With parrots, the most commonly caught illness is Psittacosis or Parrot Fever. My aunt and uncle actually caught Parrot Fever from the parrots they got as a wedding present.  I leave you with the email my from aunt, Carol, explaining the whole thing:

“Richard and I received as a wedding present in August 1980, a Yellow Fronted Amazon Parrot from our Best Man.  It was an awesome and unique gift that was going to be with us for likely 50 years or more.  His name was ‘Herbie’ and he was very friendly.  So we started our married life in married student residence at the University of Waterloo (I was in my last year, and Richard was talking courses towards his Chartered Accountant designation) with Herbie.  His wings were clipped, so he would walk around the apartment, like a cat or dog, and play with his toys.  Unfortunately, within the first couple of month of his life he became ill.  We had no money, poor starving students, but found a kind vet who said that he had eaten something that was destroying his liver and he would not live past the end of the week.  Because the cost of ‘Herbie’ was huge, our friend had paid for a life insurance policy on him, and we quite quickly picked up a second parrot, same breed from the same pet store and called him Gomer.  This was around the end of October, beginning of November.

In mid December, Richard and I couldn’t figure out why we seemed to need to sleep so much, we would get a good 8 hours of sleep a night, but want to have a nap around 10 am, and again in the afternoon, and into bed at 7 pm.  Then we started to notice that we had no energy, taking the stairs to our third floor apartment was a real chore, and we seemed to need more sleep and have less and less appetite.  We would talk to Mom once a week, and was telling her that neither of us were feeling very good and she mentioned that over the weekly conversations we were complaining about our symptoms that were getting worse, she recommended we go to the hospital.

So Saturday morning, maybe 10 days before Christmas (and right into December exams) we went to the Kitchener Waterloo Hospital.  They separated us and starting asking the same questions, had we been out of the country, were we drug users, had we eaten in a strange restaurant etc., etc.  They took blood tests, did small stress tests and were somewhat baffled.  Then Richard thought to mention Gomer.  The doctor in emergency had some experience with strange diseases and grabbed a book to start looking up exotic indicators, he found it almost immediately, we fit all the criteria for Parrot Fever (Psittacosis).

He put Richard and I on high doses of Tetracycline, and he contacted Public Health about our diagnosis.  We were sent home and told to quarantine ourselves in our apartment, no visitors were aloud and Public Health would come by to assess.  Through Public Health, Gomer was also put on Tetracycline, but unfortunately, because of either the high doses of the antibiotic, or because Gomer had suffered from a high fever without us knowing, his personality changed, he was no longer friendly, he preferred to be on his own, Richard could work with him, but he wasn’t keen to be with anyone else, so he spent more time in his cage than we liked.  For us personally, we spent a week or so relying on friends and family to place food at our door, Richard missed work, I missed my December exams (had to write them in January) and we were advised that if we got pregnant in the next 2 -3 years, we should abort the pregnancy (so we waited 5 years to have our first child).

Public Health checked on us for a few months, but had immediately shut down the pet store as they had found that they were bringing in these parrots, and not following the Canadian quarantine policies or procedures.

As a side note, we had Gomer for about 8 years, he really didn’t ever become any friendlier, and through a family member, we found him a home with other parrots, they felt he was in really good health given how he started his life, so we gave him to a new owner for a better ‘parrot’ life and in return, we got the piano that is still in our living room.”