The rise of robotic dairy farming

Driving through rural parts of England, you will notice cows grazing freely on large areas of pasture – an idyllic scene commonly seen in adverts for dairy products. Cows are grazing animals, which means they need access to open pastures to maintain their physical and mental well-being.

This picture-perfect idea of happy cows roaming around in lush, green grass might have been a true portrayal of the dairy industry 50 years ago, at a time when milkmen were commonplace. But today? Not so much.

In the UK, most dairy cows still have access to the outdoors in summer. However, as desperate dairy farmers are in search of more efficient ways to increase their profits, a growing number of cows are being kept indoors for longer periods, or even all year around.

As part of the shift from traditional dairy farming to intensive indoor farming, a small, but growing number of farmers are also investing in milking robots – automated machines that milk the cows. The move is most often a positive change for farmers, but it isn’t necessarily what’s best for cows.

Farmers in the UK are having a tough time with a number of factors, including the economy, labour, consumer attitudes and animal welfare pressure.

The numbers of dairy farmers in the UK has been falling as small and average size farms have been financially affected by price cuts. However, the amount of milk produced has stayed the same because the larger dairy farmers have bigger herds, and are able to cope with the changing prices.

About ten years ago, there were approximately 21,000 dairy farms in the UK, but by 2025 that number is predicted to fall to fewer than 5,000. This is already being observed: between 2013 and 2016, 1,002 farms closed for business. 

There are various reasons for dairy farmers to go out of business, but the price of milk determines a great deal in the industry. The expenses involved in producing milk includes rent for the farm, food for the cows as well as costs for labour. If the cost isn’t equivalent to what the farmer is being paid, they may go into debt and ultimately face bankruptcy.  

The past two years have been especially hard on farmers. In 2016, the wholesale price of milk fell to 25p per litre, a 14 per cent drop from the year before and the lowest figure in a generation. The dairy industry also experienced the highest recorded number of farms being sold for debt-related reasons. Today, however, a litre of milk will make farmers more than 30p. 

Although milk prices are increasing again, farmers are still facing other issues such as labour costs. UK dairy farms rely greatly on workers from abroad which means that when free movement of people ends in March 2019 because of Brexit, finding labour will be a major challenge.

According to a survey carried out by YouGov in June, British citizens are not keen to fill the empty positions in dairy farming; the survey found that out of 2,000 UK adults, only four per cent of them would consider working in the industry.

In addition to economic and labour difficulties, farmers are also being pressured by animal right groups, environmental activists, and consumers.

The vegan movement has been growing in recent years and is only likely to become bigger. There is also growing competition from companies inventing dairy alternatives, such as soya and almond drinks.

A recent Kantar Worldpanel study found that people over the age of 65 drink milk 875 times a year compared with five to 24-year-olds who drink milk only 275 times a year.

Farmers have also raised concerns about plant-based drinks being called “milk”. EU rules state that certain names are solely for dairy products, including “yoghurt”, “milk”, and “butter”, meaning vegan dairy alternatives cannot be sold under “diary-style” names. This is why many plant-based drinks are often referred to as “mylks”. 

For small, and average sized dairy farms to survive, farmers will have to improve their efficiency. This is often achieved by changing business models, which can mean investing in new equipment and technology to boost milk production.

Traditionally, British dairy cows spend most of their time outdoors and are only brought indoors when it’s too cold, wet or muddy. And of course, twice daily throughout the year for milking.

A typical period for cows to be out grazing is April to October. This type of dairy farming is called a grass-based system, which means that cows feed on grass instead of silage during dry months. The cows are also milked by machines which have to be attached to the cow’s teats manually.

With the ongoing instability in labour, some farmers have decided to invest in so-called milking robots.

Milking robots require indoor farming with no possibility of grazing, because the work of the robot would be interrupted if cows were to walk in and out of the barn. Such automation allows for a more flexible approach, meaning farmers don’t need as much land since the cows will not be grazing. The risk of disease, such as TB found in badger droppings, is also minimised.

Organisations representing farmers argue that milking robots are more environmentally friendly as zero grazing promotes grass growth and use by 30 per cent. More importantly, they require less staff.

These elements are what made an average-sized family farm invest £400,000 in a 300-cow milking unit. Clive Gurney, a dairy farmer based in Hereford, produces around 2.7 million litres of milk per year.

After struggling with labour, he decided to purchase four milking robots and was able to cut three jobs as a result. “We’re really considering whether we should keep on dairying,” he says. “My son and I were tied up milking the cows nine hours a day, as well as managing everything else at the farm – it just wasn’t sustainable”.

Before, a cow at Clive’s farm would have been able to produce around 7,000 litres of milk in its lifetime. Now, each one will produce around 12,000 litres of milk. The idea is to keep cows in intensive units where they feed on a high-protein diet consisting largely of cereals and soya. Their feed allows for a more efficient production of milk.

Clive’s cows are kept in barns throughout the year, where they are milked at least three times a day by a robot. When a cow enters the robot, it’s scanned for its identification tag that has information about the shape of its body and udders as well as the last time she was milked along with knowledge about the quality of her milk.

Cows are creatures of habit, which means they learn the routine of stepping into the robot in just a couple of days. If the cow has been milked too recently, the gates open and send the cow back out. The cow keeps coming back thanks to the pellets it’s given during each milking session.

Clive strongly believes milking robots, and indoor farming is a good solution for farmers and their cows. “The cows are much quieter these days, which I think means they are happy. They can be milked whenever they want.” He also emphasises the environmental benefits of milking robots. “Today, it’s all about greenhouse gasses, and we need to think about the future”.

With innovations similar to robots, that help farmers make their living, it’s safe to assume that automated technology is the future of the dairy industry. However, the phenomenon has been criticised by various animal welfare organisations.

According to a study conducted in 2016 by World Animal Protection (WAP) UK, there are around 100 confirmed indoor farming units, as well as 43 others that are unconfirmed.

The organisation sees the increase in intensive indoor farming as severely harmful to cows. “We do not believe intensive indoor milk production should be the future of UK dairy farming because of the welfare impacts on cows, including evidence of higher incidences of udder infections and lameness. And because cows cannot express natural behaviours when they are permanently housed all year round,” says Ian Woodhurst, World Animal Protection UK Farming Campaigns Manager.

The National Farmers Union has, however, hit back, saying WAP’s report is “misleading” and that the organisation has “no evidence to prove that the health and welfare of the dairy cow are compromised due to the scale or the system of the farm.”

Since the Government doesn’t collect statistics on this, something the organisation has been asking them to do for a number of years, the group has no way of telling how many intensive units actually exist today.

Woodhurst doesn’t believe there’s any way of stopping all milk in the UK being produced intensively: “The pasture-based system to an indoor system happened very fast in Denmark, over a period of about ten years.”

As an increasing number of dairy cows spend nearly their entire lives in giant barns, campaigners believe supermarkets should inform shoppers where their milk comes from. For consumers, it may be reassuring to think the milk they drink comes from animals who can do what comes naturally to them.  

A YouGov study in 2015 found that 86 per cent of adults agreed dairy cows should have access to grazing outdoors. The same study showed that 72 per cent of adults were concerned about the welfare of cows staying indoors year around.  With the help of campaigning, labels have introduced information about the numbers of times cows have spent outdoors made public. 

“We would like to see all milk labelled so consumers can tell if it has come from cows that have grazed outside for the majority of the year or if it has come from a factory-farmed cow,” says Woodhurst.

So far only some supermarkets, such as Asda and Co-op, have adopted The Pasture Promise label, which guarantees that cows have grazed on grass for at least 160 days.  


Featured images by isamiga56 via Flickr CC