Farming has traditionally been a family-driven, labour-intensive enterprise. And while the family part is still true — it’s estimated that 98 percent of Canadian farming enterprises are family owned — a scarcity of farm labour has increasingly become a challenge in recent years. Is the time ripe for the rise of robotics in agriculture?
As we noted in the 2021 Nourish Trend Report, the agriculture industry as a whole is starved for hired help. For example, the University of Guelph reports there are roughly four jobs for every Ontario Agricultural College graduate entering Ontario’s agriculture and food sector. This trend has only worsened during COVID, as travel restrictions and COVID-related concerns have lowered the number of temporary foreign workers available to work on Canadian farms.
Beyond appealing to the next generation to stay on the farm (and listen to their old man!), part of the solution to this growing challenge will likely come from technology. Specifically, expect to see the increasing use of robotics and artificial intelligence-driven (AI) applications at the farm level.
Dairy farmers are ahead of the robotics curve
One of the first sectors to take advantage of advances in robotics was dairy. DairExNet estimates there are almost 40,000 robotic milking systems (RMS) in place globally. These fully automated units literally replace the need for humans to milk the cows, saving not only wear and tear on knees and shoulders but also providing labour savings of up to 29 percent. An RMS delivers a wealth of management and health information, too, allowing producers to develop production strategies and feeding regimens right down to an individual cow-by-cow level.
In addition to RMS, many dairy farmers also use robotics in feeding and barn clean-up. Menial but essential chores like these are often hard to find volunteers for; robots never say no to the dirty work — and they don’t call in sick, either!
All of the traditional dairy equipment players have jumped into the robotics game in a big way, including DeLaval, Lely, and Boumatic. Newer players are also entering the space, like GEA, Fullwood and AMS Galaxy, among others. It’s possible that in the near future, a single operator may be able to easily manage 200 or more animals, something inconceivable only a couple of decades ago.
There’s a role for robots in every primary agricultural sector
Other sectors are quickly catching on to the benefits of robots in agriculture. Some robotic applications currently in development and use include:
It seems unlikely there will ever be a time when robots in agriculture completely replace the human element. But, with labour challenges expected to continue, technology can play an increasingly critical role in helping Canadian farm families not only survive but thrive. Heck, you may even see a dairy farmer and her husband out for date night once in a while!
For a look at how robots are filling the employment gap in foodservice, I invite you to read the companion piece to this article, Robotic Foodservice Workers: A Tech Trend Whose Time Has Come? by Jo-Ann McArthur, President of Nourish Food Marketing. The future is now.
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