In the Bulkley Valley, not many farmers can say that their cows milk themselves. But in the case of Dan, Rudy and Nathan Vandenberg, their cows do just that. This past September, the farm’s milking system switched to artificial intelligence (AI), becoming the first in northern B.C. Before, all milking was done in-person, a time-consuming activity that meant the cows had to be rounded up and herded to the barn before they could be milked. As Dan Vandenberg says, under this system, the farmers “pretty much lived there.” That is no longer the case.
Now the Vandenbergs can work on other farm chores while the cows choose when they wish to be milked. No matter what time of day, they need only line up behind one of the automatic gates and walk in one at a time. If the cow has been milked too recently, the machine’s electric gate leads it back out. Some cows love it so much that on most of their visits, the gate gently herds them back out of the stall without a milking. For those that haven’t been milked in a while, the procedure goes quickly and efficiently.
During milking, the cows munch on food and stand patiently while the machine does its work. An arm, similar to those in car factories, extends and finds the udder – with the help of lasers – and gently sterilizes and brushes the teats to stimulate milk. The arm moves with the cow to keep them as comfortable as possible. A sample of milk is tested for blood or bacteria. If there are traces, the system updates the information on the cow being milked, but if it’s clear the tank will begin to fill. Afterwards, the teats are sprayed clean once again and the electric gate leads the cow back out.
The computer information database is full of charts, graphs and spreadsheets. With a single click the screen provides information on body temperature, milk protein and fat, and how many litres a day each cow produces. The data is taken from the collars on the cows’ necks, the antenna that scans them, and of course the milk itself. It’s so accurate that the system knows when a cow is in heat and when it should be bred. Every step of the pregnancy is tracked and closely monitored. It even goes so far as to suggest the exact date and time a calf should be born. The Vandenbergs can rely on the AI’s database to inform them of every virus and to monitor the health of the cows. And the cows can rely on the machine to milk them several times a day.
“It’s a life-changer for all of us,” Vandenberg says. Even for the cows! Since the two machines were installed, both farmers and cows have had more free time. The cows haven’t had to be on their feet as much as they did when the milking was done by hand. And rested and relaxed cows means more milk production, even higher than their quota.
At first, the Vandenbergs set up 24-hour shifts for a week to get the cows used to the new procedure. It takes an average of five days to train the new heifers. Now, however, the new technology means fewer people are needed to run the farm, though it does require daily maintenance.
A case for robotics
The Vandenberg’s milking AI may be the new face of farming technology. The most recent census data, from 2018, reports that 11 percent of dairy barns in Canada now use robotic systems.
“Dairy farming should go this way,” Vandenberg tells Christian Courier, “It’s really nice for the cows. You can see how calm and happy they are. And it’s way more natural for them and for us.”
As farmers across Canada weigh the costs and benefits of robotic milking, we may see more farms switching to these machines. In 2017, the Canadian government set up a five-year Dairy Farm Investment Program, meant to improve the productivity of Canadian dairy producers with upgrades to their equipment. It may be only a matter of time until local dairy farmers reach for their smartphones before any other tool.