How automation can work to support effiency in farming systems

The robot dispenses the right amount of feed supplements for each pen, according to the needs of the goats. This means that the breeder no longer has to prepare the mixtures by hand and carry heavy buckets, as the robot takes care of the mixtures and distribution. [NHG]

This article is part of our special report How is tech revolutionising the agricultural sector?.

Automation in the farming sector is playing an increasing role in improving the quality of both animal and farmers lives. Pascal Huger, a goat breeder in Thenay in the Loir-et-Cher region, talks to EURACTIV France about his choice to automate on his farm.

Huger has opted for maximal automation, a move that he says gives him more time to take better care of the animals.

Caring for a herd of 400 goats of the Saanen breed, Huger sells his milk to cheesemakers who produce cheese under the Protected Designation Origin (PDO) not far from his home. He wants to save time so he can look after his goats.

“Robots may seem inhuman, but they actually give me more time for my goats,” Huger said, highlighting that his priority is, and will always remain, the herd and its well-being.

An entrepreneurial approach

In order to guarantee optimum milk production, which meets the PDO’s strict specifications, the quality of the goats’ feed is the farmer’s primary concern.

“A good diet means good milk and hence a good cheese,” according to the farmer.

His goats produce the milk used for Selles-sur-Cher, Valençay, Sainte-Maure, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, as well as the renowned Crottin de Chavignol.

In 2002, he bought the farm from his boss as a former farmworker and now employs one worker of his own. Although only two of them manage this huge herd, the Saanen breed is not only good at producing milk but also has a calm temperament.

And now, thanks to automation, the most tedious tasks are left to the machines.

While the bales of hay, green fodder and grass are distributed by the farmer along with the barn gates, feed supplements are managed by a computer and distributed by a robot, which makes it possible to “personalise” the process.

While the goats are divided into separate pens according to whether they are pregnant, nursing or not, the rams are also kept separate.

The robot dispenses exactly the right amount of feed supplements for each pen, according to the needs of the goats. This means that the breeder no longer has to prepare the mixtures by hand and carry heavy buckets, as the robot takes care of the mixtures and distribution.

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Over a dozen livestock stakeholders have been campaigning across metro stations in Brussels as well as online, in a bid to fight back against the narrative propagated by NGOs and environmentalists on animal farming. At stake is the very conception of modern animal farming practices in Europe.

Controls at all stages

Milking is also fully automated. Each goat is equipped with an electronic identification tag, which identifies the goat as soon as it enters its space on the rotary milking machine. Once the liners are installed on her udders, the milk is sent directly to the storage tank, and the milk checks are carried out automatically.

This avoids regular manual sampling that disturbs the animals and also allows a better yield.

Sensors in each “pulsometer” manage the milk flow and allow for the automatic removal of the liners when the flow slows down. Milk sensors record the production of each animal and an automatic feed dispenser adapts the ration to each goat according to its production.

All the information is accessible on a touch screen that signals the slightest anomaly during milking, allowing the farmer to intervene quickly at the first sign of trouble.

The data collected by the software allows thorough management of the herd, given that each goat is listed with its lactation number, the batch in which it is located, as well as its gestation and production history.

The data also includes information regarding the milk’s quality and the goat’s health, as well as a list of declarations and administrative procedures to fulfil when an animal gives birth or leaves for the slaughterhouse.

This information enables the farmer to decide the best time to rest a goat for its dry period (about two months) before putting it back into gestation, bearing in mind that the average lactation period is ten to 12 months.

Communicating modern animal farming

A communication gap between citizens and farmers in the modern livestock sector is increasingly widening and the general sentiment is shifting from an overall good opinion of those who keep feeding the world toward a negative view on farmers’ role in today’s society.

A farm that switches to energy-saving mode

Another particularity of Huger’s operations is that he delivers his milk every day to a farmhouse cheese producer in the neighbouring village. To avoid cooling his milk too much, he adds some serum in the evening so that it can start the fermentation process.

The temperature is thus lowered to 12°, instead of the 4° required for health reasons if the milk goes to the dairy.

Furthermore, its milk tank is equipped with a heat recuperator; the energy spent to cool the milk is recovered to heat the hot water, as well as for the insulation of the buildings which, together with ventilation, keeps the goats cooler inside in summer.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Gerardo Fortuna]

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