Updated: Jan 26
During my formative years I invested a significant Gift of my Time working on a Dairy Farm. As a Dairy operation we were quite advanced in the use of technology which allowed our herd to be ranked #23 within Ontario. However, recently I had the opportunity to visit a state-of-the-art Dairy operation in Quebec and not only did it quickly make me feel very old but made me wonder if what I was witnessing was the result of Continuous Improvement or the injection into the industry of Disruptive Technology?
Going to University I was blessed to be educated by many outstanding professors but two of them really stood out and resonated with me. First was John Kotter who is a thought leader in Business, Leadership and Change and the other Clayton Christensen who watched our economy change due to the influx of Disruptive Technologies ... so ultimately was I witnessing an Evolution or a Revolution ... you be the judge.
All I can say is there is a lot of discussion about autonomous vehicles and Industry 4.0 but based on what I have seen both are very active within the Dairy Farm Industry ...
The Dairy Herd
Back in the Day
We had 80 head in our milking line which meant we actually looked after 160 head on a daily basis. My day started at 6:00AM to do the first milking of the Day and we would do it again at around 4:30PM.
We got to know the characteristics of our animals they got to know us. This meant that as we were milking our cows we were inspecting them to insure they were healthy. Ultimately we were tied to our herd and our obligation to milk them so we could never venture more than 4 hours away from the farm to insure we would be back in time to do the milking.
During my Tenure we evolved from automated bucket milker's where we still had to dump the milk into a pail and carry it to our milk house to filer and collect it into our bulk milk tank ... and what a joy it was when we upgraded to a pipeline milker. Using vacuum milk transferred from the cow directly to our bulk milk tank. We still had to clean the cow before milking and that strong emotional attachment to the animals remained.
My morning reward after chores had been completed was going for breakfast and finally being able to enjoy a warm shower ...
We have an App for that !! The milking never stops the cows are now attended to on their own schedule by a robotic milking machine. The robot is much more competent than I ever was ... as the cow enters the robotic cell, their temperature is checked, based on the production level they are give a pre-determined amount of feed (grain). As they are being milked the quality and quantity of milk is being monitored and recorded for later analysis. The milk is automatically conveyed into a bulk tank never truly being exposed to the elements. Should any of the measurements not be within an acceptable range the cow is diverted to a holding pen and an alert is issued to the framer electronically.
The farmer in essence rises whenever they want can casually sit and enjoy breakfast with the family and when so inclined glances at his Smart Phone to review any alerts but begins to process all of the data collected in order to make the appropriate decisions if a cow should be retired from the line, provided some sort of medical aid ... while already calculating what his income will be for the month.
In my mind it is the effective culmination of using AI, Block Chain and Industry 4.0
Back in the Day
We actually had a pretty nice modern barn but definitely not by today's standards. In our barn our cows were assigned a specific stable and secure in Stanchions with a shared water bowl. Animal waste was collected in a gutter where our stable cleaner scraped it away, dumped it into a hydraulic pump to be stored in a pit located far away from the barn. Ventilation was assisted with fans but you could always be assured that thanks to the heat emitted from the animals our barn was warm.
The barns are engineering marvels where the interior temperature can be maintained at a consistent temperature. The use of temperature sensors induces the side walls of the barn to raise or lower accordingly to adjust the interior temperature optimal for the animals. The roof is manufactured using translucent panels to allow for the entry of defused but natural light ... so really no additional lighting is really necessary.
The parameter of the barn but still inside has a robotic sweeper to constantly escort stray feed back into the manger for the animals to access ... think I-Robot
In this example animal waste is collected from below a slated floor and pumped to an irrigation sprayer to help fertilize a targeted field relatively close to the barn ... another field pass eliminated.
The farmer meanwhile is sitting in his home watching Hockey while glancing at his App that monitors the barn and the herd without having to put on his heavy coat, rubber boots to go check in person.
Back in the Day
We ploughed, we disced, we cultivated and then we planted our crops. Waited patiently until they were ready for the harvest.. We did already have certain crops that had been modified and tailored to prosper in our growing conditions. We used our sense of sight, smell and taste to determine the optimum time for the crop to be harvested. The actual harvest was conducted primarily based on Tribal knowledge for the best harvest route and which fields would provide the optimum yield for a particular crop.
During my time agricultural equipment did get larger so we could cover more area in one pass. Still typically, for example, growing corn we would have to invest in 4-6 passes across a field including the harvest round. If we decided to plant the same crop in the same field the following year we mentally took note on the density of fertilizer to apply and where ... yup, that Tribal knowledge again.
Best way to explain the current state is to start by conducting a harvest using a combine.
Step into the climate controlled cab ... yes climate controlled so you can harvest wearing your Sunday best attire. Turn the beast on ... lights flash, displays light up, nd cameras begin to record ... you quickly realize you are sitting in the middle of a technology hub. This machine is amazing. As it harvests it is collecting reams of data regarding yield, moisture content, obstructions and in my case this combine was attached to a 40 foot table which means we were harvesting a swath of 40 feet wide in every pass.
But the magic didn't stop there. The machine was being guided by a GPS map that had been created earlier in the season or even years past that automatically guided the combine through the field on a pre-determined route. Did I mention that the land speed of the combine was constantly being adjusted to maximize the through-put capability of the combine?, a heavy yield the combine would slow and light yield let us speed it up and of course when the grain hopper was full it signaled the driver and alerted the grain hauler to retrieve the load ... usually if synchronized without stopping or pausing the harvest. The operator had no need to touch any controls or even the steering wheel since the combine was harvesting autonomously.
But it gets better ... based on the knowledge captured during harvest and scrubbed through some AI. The following year, during planting the harvest knowledge was used to determine the density of seed planting and fertilizer application to improve yield ( a constant learning model). The farmer is also using a zero till methodology so no more need for annual ploughing, reducing both cost and the emission of green house gases.
I think the transformation that is happening in Agriculture is a combination of Continuous Improvement and the influx of Disruptive technologies ... but if we look at what is happening even just in the Dairy Sector it provides a good insight to where the rest of business and industry will be evolving towards.
Just this past week i was speaking with a former resident of Leamington Ontario which used to be tomato growing capital of Ontario who told me that Green Houses are the norm where farmers erecting greenhouse covering 100's of acres are no longer the talk of the town.
I now find myself being old and reminiscing about the old days but not necessarily the good old days. Guess it is your time to seek innovation, automation and get on the bus of the future since what we think is coming is already here and proving it works.