What's a family farm? How is technology changing farming today? While farming may evoke the picture of tractors in the field and rubber boots in the barn, the truth is that dairy farming is serious business and the investment and advancement in technology has made farms more efficient and sustainable.
The use of some remarkable automated milking systems, which allow cows to choose themselves when to be milked and keep information about each cow's production, has gone up steadily in popularity since they were first introduced in Canada nearly 15 years ago.
Building on a solid reputation for commitment to innovation, our farmers are investing in automation of various farming chores, in greater numbers for various reasons: improve the quality of their own work lives or the overall health of their livestock, compensate for labour shortage or to make their farms more sustainable.
Adopting technology may mean more flexible schedules, but does not mean less contact with the animals -- the robot will call the farmer's smartphone if it spots a problem with a cow for example, but it cannot replace the trained eyes and ears of an experienced farmer. Calves, heifers, and cows still need attention from humans.
The Canadian Dairy Information Centre indicate there were 273 farms in Canada using robotic milking systems by the end of 2012, or roughly 3 per cent of the dairy barns across the country. Manitoba had the highest percentage of farmers adopting robotics at 12.1 per cent, followed by British Columbia at 6 per cent and Alberta at 5.2 per cent.
While the overall number of Canadian dairy operations using automated systems is still relatively small, it's significantly higher than the percentage of farms in the United States that have made the move. A recent study by University of Wisconsin Professor Douglas Reinemann pegged the number of farms relying on robots to do their milking at roughly 150, or less than 0.5 per cent of the number of U.S. dairy farms.
Robots are only part of the farm technology story, though. Should we care about a cow's physical activity? More Canadian farmers are adopting pedometry -- which employs motion sensors on cows to measure and record their activity. This data is analyzed via computer software programs to help farmers detect when cows are in heat. The technology reduces labour costs, improves efficiency, and significantly improves breeding success.
Automated equipment that helps clean manure from barn floors also reduces labour costs and promotes better animal hygiene.
Tending to calves' nutritional needs can also use high-tech equipment: Automated calf feeding systems cut the time devoted to manual feeding by as much as 50 per cent and let calves drink milk more often, contributing to their vigour.
The growth of various kinds of automation in Canada is another example of our farmers leading the pack when it comes to innovation and investment in technology that makes farms more efficient. Adoption of technology goes hand in glove with different farm management skills, as well.
Farmers find the use of camera monitoring systems very useful, especially if they need to monitor the behaviour of animals in special need -- like a cow that may show signs of difficulty in calving. Like a mother checking on a sleeping infant from her bedside baby monitor, some dedicated farmers I know look at that webcam in their bedroom during the night to monitor animals with special needs, to know when to get up and tend to them.
Canadian farmers are able to make these investments in innovative technology in large part because of our Canadian system. Production quotas based on consumer demand and price stability allow our dairy farmers to plan for the future and invest in their operations. All this without tax dollars flowing from governments to support farm income -- unlike in the U.S. and overseas.
The growing prevalence of robotic milkers on farms across the country is a sign of encouraging times -- these investments pay dividends in rural economies and make us all stronger.