Twenty years after robotic milking innovator Lely installed its first machine in the Netherlands and more than a decade after the device began its steady march across Eastern Ontario, the debate goes on:
What's better for the cows and the handlers: robots or more traditional, more hands-on pipeline milking?
I said the debate goes on, but it's much more subdued than when robotic milking in our region was in its infancy. Farmers have settled into two camps, one side favouring robots and the other content to stick with a basic vaccum system.
As far as I can see, the robot supporters don't waver as much anymore. It's not like the early days when farmers were installing robots and then pulling them out because they, their cows, or both couldn't get the hang of it.
As for the traditionalists, it seems many still wonder if they shouldn't try a robot... and with so many on the market now, you can pick up a second-hand Lely Astronaut for about $125,000.
The impact of robots on the region was made crystal clear when one was installed in the new dairy research centre at University of Guelph's Kemptville Campus so the merits and drawbacks can be fully investigated.
Surprisingly, there's no confusion whatsoever about robots at Embrun's Ferme Gillette, home of one of the most recognized dairy herds in the world, where family spokesman Louis Patenaude insists they'll never darken his barn.
That's because Louis feels the farmer loses valuable contact with his cows when he turns the main interaction between them over to a robotic system. Getting up close and personal with a cow's hind end allows human milkers to detect problems early on and nip them in the bud, Louis maintains.
He ought to now. Gillette E Smurf, a 16-year-old Holstein that keeps on giving, was recently named the world's most productive dairy cow.
That feat earned her a write-up in the prestigious Hoard's Dairyman magazine. I ought to know... I wrote it. Smurf has never been near a robot and Louis would be the first to suggest that's part of the reason for her success... along with her longevity genes, her willingness to milk, and the fact she's never been sick.
The opposite side of the discussion is represented by Navan's Cloverhurst Farms, by brothers Glen and Wayne Edwards who operate the spread purchased by their father in the 1940s. I had the pleasure of visiting Cloverhurst recently as part of a meeting there by the Vintage Iron and Traditions of Eastern Ontario club of which, I'm proud to say, I'm an honorary member.
As the name suggests, VITEO is all about preserving and promoting agricultural and rural artifacts and its members, including Glen Edwards, own some of the largest collections in the region.
Cloverhurst has two big things happening: A luxurious tri-robot dairy barn overseen by Wayne and a top-notch John Deere equipment collection which is Glen's baby. We VITEO members got to appraise both.
In the farmyard and back at the house Glen shares with wife Maureen, it's all John Deere all the time. There's a collection of fine older tractors, wooden wagons and other machinery all bearing the JD colours, and, except for some red attachments, the impressive working fleet is also green and yellow.
At the residence, there's JD paraphernalia everywhere you look, including the mailbox, the toolbox in the garage, the birdhouse and wind chimes: "Even the flowers are green and yellow," one VITEO member who favours a different colour observed.
Upstairs is Glen's playroom, with Deere miniatures everywhere you look: "He has more toys than I do," Maureen noted, leaving the impression that was about to change.
At the meeting, I was sporting a John Deere special edition cap that I picked up at a company product launch in the U.S. Although Glen eyed it hungrily, I was able to leave with the cap still firmly on my head.
Unhappily, robotic milkers don't come in green and yellow so 11 years ago the Edwards settled for three early Lely Astronauts which they worked into a new open stall barn sectioned off to handle 150 head which go through the system at their leisure.
It took awhile, but Wayne and Glen have been fully converted to the benefits of robotic milking. While they didn't upgrade to the second generation of Astronaut, they're thinking of replacing their existing machines with the latest Lely offering.
Wayne agrees with Louis Patenaude that a farmer must remain close to his cows and he says he does that despite the fact the Astronauts have taken over milking duties. Any farmer who thinks he can plug in the robots and walk away is sadly mistaken, he emphasizes.
He still has to monitor conditions and output in the barn, trouble shoot, and refine management techniques. The only difference is that he has some automated help. To keep it all functioning smoothly, every now and then a cow which can't adapt to the robots must be culled from the herd.
Perhaps the biggest advantage is that Wayne doesn't have to be there precisely when the cows want to be milked because the robots will accommodate that urge any time of the day or night.