Robotics in Agriculture: Is Farming Going to the Bots?

Farming has traditionally been a family-driven, labour-intensive enterprise. And while the family part is still true — it’s estimated that 98 percent of Canadian farming enterprises are family-owned — a scarcity of farm labour has increasingly become a challenge in recent years. Is the time ripe for the rise of robotics in agriculture?

As we noted in the 2021 Nourish Network Trend Report, the agriculture industry as a whole is starved for hired help. For example, the University of Guelph reports there are roughly four jobs for every Ontario Agricultural College graduate entering Ontario’s agriculture and food sector. This trend has only worsened during COVID, as travel restrictions and COVID-related concerns have lowered the number of temporary foreign workers available to work on Canadian farms.

Beyond appealing to the next generation to stay on the farm (and listen to their old man!), part of the solution to this growing challenge will likely come from technology. Specifically, expect to see the increasing use of robotics and artificial intelligence-driven (AI) applications at the farm level.

Dairy farmers are ahead of the robotics curve

One of the first sectors to take advantage of advances in robotics was dairy. DairExNet estimates there are almost 40,000 robotic milking systems (RMS) in place globally. These fully automated units literally replace the need for humans to milk the cows, saving not only wear and tear on knees and shoulders but also providing labour savings of up to 29 percent. An RMS delivers a wealth of management and health information, too, allowing producers to develop production strategies and feeding regimens right down to an individual cow-by-cow level.

In addition to RMS, many dairy farmers also use robotics in feeding and barn clean-up. Menial but essential chores like these are often hard to find volunteers for; robots never say no to the dirty work — and they don’t call in sick, either!

All of the traditional dairy equipment players have jumped into the robotics game in a big way, including DeLaval, Lely, and Boumatic. Newer players are also entering the space, like GEA, Fullwood, and AMS Galaxy, among others. It’s possible that in the near future, a single operator may be able to easily manage 200 or more animals, something inconceivable only a couple of decades ago.

There’s a role for robots in every primary agricultural sector

Other sectors are quickly catching on to the benefits of robotics in agriculture. Some robotic applications currently in development and use include:

  • Drones for application of crop protection products. Drones offer labour savings and enhance operator safety and reduce environmental impact due to the precision built into the systems.
  • Self-driving tractors and equipment. GPS-guided systems expand the range of people who can safely operate the equipment and fit nicely into precision farming practices. Rather than relying on the human eye when applying crop protection products and fertilizer, for example, these units are guided by data and GPS coordinates to apply only what’s needed, where it’s needed. And, they all but eliminate human error, unlike the time I dozed off at the wheel and mashed the front end of my dad’s favourite tractor into a tree.
  • AI to monitor crop and soil health. AI technology is also starting to replace the human eye in detecting disease in plants, identifying pests, and flagging poor soil nutrition. For example, AI-powered sensors can detect and target weeds and then decide which herbicide to apply within a given field, saving time, labour, and money while increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of these products.
  • Automated greenhouse operations. Robotic systems appear extensively in the greenhouse sector, from monitoring diseases and pests to watering and even harvesting. Companies like Portscapes are developing ‘smart’ greenhouses that can be monitored and operated remotely, allowing operators more flexibility with their time, and of course, saving labour costs.

It seems unlikely there will ever be a time when robotics in agriculture completely replace the human element. But, with labour challenges expected to continue, technology can play an increasingly more critical role in helping Canadian farm families not only survive but thrive. Heck, you may even see a dairy farmer and her husband out for date night once in a while!

For a look at how robots are filling the employment gap in foodservice, I invite you to read the companion piece to this article, Robotic Foodservice Workers: A Tech Trend Whose Time Has Come? by Jo-Ann McArthur, President of Nourish Food Marketing. The future is now.

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