Saturday, March 15, 2014

Where robots milk happy cows

Milking time and no human being in sight: Technology has taken over that task and the animals are not complaining. PHOTO | FILE

Milking time and no human being in sight: Technology has taken over that task and the animals are not complaining. PHOTO | FILE  NATION MEDIA GROUP

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Dairy farmer Juhani Korkiamäki had to make a big decision. His old barn with pipeline milking machine was falling apart and it had room for only 30 cows. He had had rented another barn from neighbouring farmer who had called it quits.

Korkiamäki was a young farmer with wife and two little children. If he did nothing after few years his farm would be in serious trouble like his neighbour’s and hundreds of other small farms in Finland. It was not his intention. He wanted to make it big.

After a thorough feasibility study, Korkiamäki and his wife invested in a new barn with an automatic milking system (AMS) and, one January morning in 2009 the Korkiamäkis moved to their new barn.

“First we thought we would continue with the traditional system, just renovate and expand it. But it was very good we had invested in a new barn and a milking robot,” says Korkiamäki.

Soon Korkiamäki realised they had more animals than capacity of the single AMS station. Instead of selling the surplus cows, they invested in a second milking robot. Now they milk 130 of them.

Korkiamäki is not among the earliest adopters of this technology in Finnish dairy farming but he is not late either. Milking robots started to interest farmers about 15 years ago and their popularity is at its peak now.

Last year eight farmers, who all are my close friends and live near each other, changed their milking systems. Everyone chose AMS.

According to research, Korkiamäki is a typical automated dairy farmer. He is young and married with little children and forced to do a big investment in a generational transition.

The most important reason for investing in automatic milking system is the worker’s welfare. Traditional systems, such as bucket and pipeline and even milking parlours, demand hard work and intensity two times a day; every day and at the same time. At the same time because cows are conservative creatures and hate improvising.

The Pellervo Economic Research Institute has calculated that AMS cuts a farmer’s working hours by about 30 per cent per cow. “As farmers we are not handcuffed with a clock anymore. We can do almost all the same things that normal working families can, but not at the weekends,” Korkiamäki says.

For example with the traditional systems, farmers are milking cows in the evenings instead of spending time with their children or going for hobbies. Now Korkiamäki has time to help his sons with homework.


But AMS does not mean that a farmer can leave his barn altogether. In the old days, farmers knew their cows because they touched them at least two times a day.

Now you have to be very alert and interested in your cows. They are still the same animals with decades-long experience of tricks. You must visit the barn to check if some of them are on heat, are feeling okay and so on. And on the top of that you have to monitor production data. Which cow is producing how much and which one is not producing as it used to.

Another benefit for choosing AMS is income. When cows move freely in and around barn and go to milking station when it suits them best, they produce more. Pellervo has found out that milk production does not automatically go up, but Korkiamäki has other kind of evidence.

According to him, production growth was 1,200 kilos per year per cow. That is more than 10 per cent. His explanation for the increase in production is that human milking is done twice a day. But in the automated milking barns, cows milk themselves, or go to the milking station, in average of two to seven times a day. This means that the most productive cows benefit from robotic milking and produce even more.

Free roaming around the barn  keeps the animal’s feet and joints in good condition, meaning farmers avoid unnecessary medical expenses.

With AMS, there is a serene atmosphere in the barn. Cows are much more satisfied with the surroundings now than they were in the old days. If they, for some reason go one hour later than normally to the barn, only the smallest calves might protest and be fed by hand. The robot is here to stay.

Although Finnish dairy farming is quite modern, it lags behind neighbours Sweden and Denmark. Ten years ago 12 per cent of Finnish milk producers invested in robotic milking, while in other two countries, figure was 50 per cent.

But as Korkiamäki’s experience shows, automatic milking systems and spacious barns are here to stay.

Milking is quite hard and precise job to do by oneself. If you are tired or distracted you might harm the animal. That is why we trust robots with our animals. They do the job precisely. And as I said earlier, cows hate it when things change.

With robotic milking, Finnish dairy farmers have the competitive edge they need in the global agricultural business. It also means that investments are getting bigger and bigger. One research says that average investment of farm modernisation including, a new barn with all the equipment and systems today, is about 700,000 euros (Sh84,000,000).

But that does not discourage young, ambitious farmers. Recently Korkiamäki put up a company with another family.

The company, Finnmilk, is building a dairy that can accommodate 600 cows with a production of five million litres per year.

With this kind of figures even banks are interested, so getting money is not a problem. Finnmilk will start operating in 12 months and it will be the biggest dairy farm in Finland.

To be number one is not at all important. What is important is to secure a livelihood and boost Finnish food production. I’d hate to see milk imported to Finland from, say, Sweden. For me and people like me, dairy farming is not just a job. It is a way of life.

-Mr Juntilla is a Finish journalist now living in Kenya.