Spotlight on robotic milking

THE use of robotic milking devices on dairy farms is to be the subject of a investigation by a Yorkshire university, with academics keen to find out if they are counter-productive or not.

Robotic milking technology, first used commercially in the Netherlands in the early 90s and now used in increasing abundance in Europe and Britain, allows farmers to free up vast amounts of their time by having machines carry out the milking.

A University of Hull study is to research the technological and social implications of robotic milking methods, specifically how it may change the ways in which dairy farmers manage their herds and businesses.

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The study will address a range of concerns which may impact on the traditional methods of dairy farming, including the relationship between cows and farmers, how farmers learn about and use complex robotic and information technologies and the ethical implications of milking cows.

Robotic milking provides the potential for greater milk yields and increased animal welfare as well as greater flexibility for the farmer who can spend less time in the milking parlour and more time running a separate business.

Since robotic milking gives cows more freedom of movement and enables them to choose when to be milked, robotic milking may be beneficial for cattle, with the technology providing farmers with information about the presence of disease in milk and allows close monitoring of the changing productivity of each cow.

However, some argue that human presence in milking is useful as that gives the farm worker an opportunity to check that cows are not sick or injured. Others think that robotic milking tends to be linked to systems which keep cows indoors all year, rather than being allowed to go outside to graze, and that compromises animal welfare and the image of dairy farming.

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Dr Lewis Holloway who is leading the study said: "Recent studies have focused mainly on the human experience in animal farming practices; this study however will attempt to redress the balance by shedding light on changing relationships between livestock animals and humans in a technologically mediated environment,"

David Shaw, a dairy farmer near York and vice-chairman of the North Eastern dairy board of the National Farmers' Union, said that robotic machines were the future for the next generation of dairy farmers.

"It means farmers are not as tired as you are not milking 24/7.

"As for cows being looked after properly it depends on the people working with the machines and it does not mean you cannot continue to put time into animal husbandry.

"It does mean however you can have another job as well," he added.