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Robots five years down the road: What’s different, what’s next?

Steve Fried for Progressive Dairyman Published on 05 May 2017
Robot milker

“Sixty-five percent of today’s students will be involved in jobs that don’t exist yet.” Sounds crazy, right? But the 2013 U.S. Department of Labor report that made this claim is likely closer to the truth than many of us can imagine.

Think about the advancements in harvesting milk that have occurred over the past century. From the introduction of the bucket milking system in the 1920s, to the pipeline in the 1950s, followed closely by the first milking parlors in the ’60s and finally the first commercial introduction of the milking robot in 1992, the job of “milker” has evolved from “strenuous physical laborer” to “cow and data manager.”



Major advancements have been made in how we manage cows, labor and milk harvesting. These advancements will not stop with the robots we know today. Customer need will drive product development, and as the technology evolves, so too will the skill set of those involved in servicing, supporting and operating robots.

“America is at the beginning of its third great technological revolution,” writes Edward E. Gordon in his 2013 book, Future Jobs. He predicts that major breakthroughs will produce new employment opportunities in:

  • Big data
  • Nanoscience
  • 3-D printing
  • Advanced robotics

So what does the future hold for the dairy industry? I am not a scientist, nor a visionary. I am not an engineer or an inventor. I have a dairy farming background, have spent my entire life working with dairy cows and dairy farmers, and I have personally experienced dramatic changes in genetic advancement, reproductive practices, livestock housing, cow comfort and milk harvesting.

Gordon identifies two things that really stand out to me when considering the future of our dairy industry – big data and advanced robotics.

Regardless of the breed of cows you have, the size of your herd or your farming goals, the industry has advanced and you are not doing things the same as you did 20, 10 or even five years ago – at least I hope you aren’t.


You have more information at your fingertips, you have more technology that you access to make decisions, and you are more informed, in real time, with information relative to your operation and your overall profitability. But as we have already witnessed, progress is a rapidly moving target. The continued collection and merging of big data with advanced robotics will drive efficiencies in the North American dairy industry that we can only dream of today.

The milking and feeding robots available today are the result of years of product development and refinement, and I fully expect that we will see more enhancements to the current product offerings will make them even more attractive.

Increasing functionality and reducing operating costs will drive the uptake of the existing technology across a broader segment of the market. As robotics become more mainstream, we will see volume driving competition, pricing and continued investments by robot manufacturers into making their products easier to use by humans and cows alike.

Today, we are experiencing the entry of robots into herds of 1,000, 2,000 and even more, and I expect this trend to continue. The declining availability of quality labor to milk and feed cows will be the main ingredient to start the large-herd robotic conversation.

As more of these larger dairies adopt robots, I predict they will find the improvements in cow health and welfare, reproduction and the ability to better maximize genetic potential will be the key profit measurements to justify the investment in robots.

John Postma of Modesto, California is in the process of transitioning 600 cows into a 10-robot dairy. When pressed about “why single-box robots?” Postma states, “Cow comfort is what sold me. The less stress that’s on them, and how happy they are is what did it for me.”


When asked about the cost of entry into robotics, John adds, “You’ve got to think of this purchase differently. You will get more milk from less cows with automation.” Herds of 10,000 or more cows in single-box robots is not impossible to imagine.

How can we continue to collaborate big data and advanced robotics? Today, many producers utilize genomic testing as part of a standard operating procedure to identify which females to focus on and bring into the herd. What if we could marry genomic testing with milk intake and rate of gain information in robotic calf feeding systems to select “the best of the best” high-genomic females, and then with in vitro fertilization accelerate the rate of genetic improvement?

The dairy industry continues to be challenged to produce “more with less.” Starting with the best genetics, and making them better, will assist in this quest.

What about the ability to utilize big data and advanced robotics to pinpoint dry matter intake and individual cow income over feed costs with 99 percent accuracy?

As robotic feeding systems continue to evolve, as we continue to get more precise at measuring the inputs and collecting the results, I believe we will be even better qualified to develop individualized feeding regimes to produce even greater results. Better metabolic health, higher milk production, more fat or protein – continuous improvement will be something you will expect and receive.

I expect we will see improvement in how the technology measures and enhances milk quality or new equipment to improve hoof health. There are robotic technologies on the horizon today that will vastly improve how we handle manure in freestall barns.

These new developments will benefit both man and cow alike, replacing costly scraping systems and creating a much cleaner environment that will benefit both milk quality and hoof health. What about a robotic system for managing freestalls, from bedding delivery to daily stall maintenance?

I anticipate that in the next five years, the robot technology we have available to us today will continue to improve, and new robot technology will come to market. In many cases, things we haven’t even thought of yet will come to the market. If you think about it, the first iPhone came on the market only 10 years ago, June 29, 2007.

Five years ago, would you have thought that an online company (Amazon) would be larger than Walmart? Did you ever think the “Yellow Cab” would be replaced by Uber, average citizens utilizing their cars to pick up clients at the airport? Developments are driven by customer need, and as more dairy producers identify robotic needs specific to their situation, the robot suppliers will respond or fall by the wayside.

These are very exciting times.  end mark

Steve Fried
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