July 31, 2019

I, Farmer: The rise of robotics in agriculture

by Matt Weeks

Advancements in agricultural machinery have always made farmers more efficient and allowed them to do more work—faster and smarter. From the invention of the moldboard plow to the modern combine, the mechanization of agricultural labor enables farmers to produce more and have a better quality of life. Anyone who has baled hay in summer heat understands the value of air conditioning and a big round baler.

Robotics have continued that tradition, and we have likely just seen the beginning of what is to come. In all aspects of modern agriculture, robotics is being explored and developed to automate repeatable processes and drive greater efficiency. From broadacre agriculture and dairy to highly specialized vegetable production, start-ups and Fortune 500 companies are all working to develop advanced robotics for use in modern production agriculture. This hasn’t been without criticism and skepticism—both in the industry and in the media. In fact, the number of recently penned articles in mass media outlets has been increasing—and they are usually not favorable of farmers and ranchers. A quick run-down:

That last article from The Slate is an interesting read, but also plays on the alarmist fears that robots (which is really just a scary way to say mechanization) will be central to the food supply of the future—controlled by a select few in a dystopian society that is void of humanity. Pretty scary stuff, until you actually talk to farmers.

And what do producers think?

No other industry has been more transformed by science and technology than agriculture. And yet, farmers and ranchers are constantly pushing the envelope in an attempt to get back to the roots of what they do—care for the land and animals that they have been entrusted with. Modern agriculture requires much more than just time in the tractor cab. It requires the ability to be present in the community, in the fields and working with an expanded array of trusted advisors who are making management decisions that are based on advanced data and analytics.

The dairy industry is in the process of being transformed by large-scale automation—all for the benefit of consumers, the farmers and the cows. We recently spent some time talking to dairy producers about the use of robotics in their dairy operations and a few surprising facts came to life:

  1. In the dairy market, producers are quickly adopting robotics in their farms, primarily driven by labor shortages, to drive greater efficiency and to help maximize the milk production thanks to advances in herd genetics.
  2. Along with these drivers, producers also told us that robotics allows them to be more focused on their herd health, productivity and well-being. Why? Because they can simply focus on their cows—robotics takes over the day-to-day milking that previously required hours of labor every day.
  3. The implementation of robotics has allowed producers to implement more robust tracking on every one of their cows, alerting them to animal health issues before they become a problem and allowing the producers to be more proactive in their care for their herd.
  4. And by automating the redundant tasks (in this case daily milking) they have been given back time that they can spend focused on their herd.
  5. Not to mention additional time that can be spent with family and personal freedom.

So, what’s the takeaway?

Agriculture is the largest industry that can benefit from continued technology advancements; however, consumer sentiment often portrays these advances as anti-farmer and anti-consumer. We talk about sustainability, yet we sometimes fail to recognize that sustainability for producers and consumers are often in conflict.

For consumers, sustainability conjures up ideas of lush green hills, wide-open spaces and a farmer firmly planted in the field—pitchfork in hand. Producers have a different idea. Because the very people that benefit the most from adopting new technology—the farmers—are exactly the ones who are leading the charge to get equipped for the future. Farmers are first to understand that technology can be exactly what we need to focus on the things that matter most.

Want more info? Read Animal Farm from George Orwell for fun or better yet, talk to Matt Weeks or Shannon Warren and hear what we have learned from producers firsthand.

Matt Weeks is a Strategic Lead at AdFarm. An agronomist by education, Matt is now helping to drive insights for clients through our AgIntel initiative.