Dairy farmers Gerhard and Heather Ritzema used to be tied to routine. They would milk their cows three times a day, every day, often starting before breakfast, whether the cattle were ready or not.

It meant they had to rely on a big staff if they ever needed or wanted to be somewhere else. If their two sons had an after-school event, for example, it would have been impossible for both parents to attend.

Six months ago, however, their Seaforth, Ont., farm became the latest dairy to install robotic milkers, as well as another automated device that helps move feed towards their cattle.

The system has become so automated that the Ritzemas now get text messages from the robots when a cow shows early signs of illness or is ready to become pregnant.

Robotic devices such as these have had a transformative effect on farms across the country. The Ritzemas say “it’s just about working smarter, not harder."

Thousands of farms around the world now use robotic technology. In Canada, the automatic milkers are more recent – and the numbers of early adopters can be counted in the dozens.

Cost is certainly a barrier. Depending on the size of a farm, going robotic can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But farmers hope to recoup that investment in three or four years, saving money largely by maintaining a smaller farm workforce.

Dairy farmers Gerhard and Heather Ritzema

Seaforth, Ont. dairy farmers Gerhard and Heather Ritzema recently invested in a number of automated system that allow them to milk and feed their cows more efficiently. (CBC)

The Ritzemas have already reduced their staff by a third and plan to go further. This is good news for their bottom line, but it was also something of a necessity since the Ritzemas had trouble finding workers with both the skills and dedication needed.

'An early-warning system'

On the Ritzema farm, the cows no longer rely on the humans to set the milking schedule. They have been taught to enter one of six robotic pens when they are ready to be milked, whether that’s mid-morning or in the middle of the night.

When they enter, a microchip on their collar helps identify the cow to the robot. Since every udder is different, the robot remembers where it will pump from on a particular cow (with the help of a laser). Within eight minutes, the milking is done and the exit gate opens.

At first, the cows were hesitant to enter, not knowing what this contraption was. But there is an incentive: the robot ejects a sweet treat as a reward, though only when the cow is ready to be milked.

Heather Ritzema says that after every milking, the mini-lab built into the machine tests all the enzymes in the cow’s milk.

“This allows us to monitor and detect the natural rhythms of the cow and it can detect if she's getting sick," says Ritzema.

"She can't tell us, but this can if she has a sore tummy. It’s an early-warning system, and also it monitors the natural [hormonal] rhythms of the cow so we can tell when to get her pregnant.”

The Ritzemas have another robot, called Juno, which helps move feed towards their cattle, gliding down the large barn and pushing hay towards the 300 cows.

Looking for opportunities to automate

Many of those driving the technological shift on farms come from the auto industry, which was an early adopter of robots in assembly plants.

Vineyard robot

Robots such as this one photographed in Ontario's Niagara region can prune grapevines in dozens of nearby wineries. (CBC)

In the fertile land near Niagara Falls, Ont.’s Vineland region, growers have embraced robots, too. Automated forklifts receive customer orders directly and move flowers and plants into waiting delivery trucks. Then there are robots that prune grapevines in the dozens of nearby wineries.

John Van De Vegte of the Vineland Research Centre worked in the auto industry, and is looking to make greenhouses the next frontier for robotics. But the two sectors couldn’t be further apart.

It’s one thing for a robot to screw a bumper onto a sedan, but it takes a more advanced machine to detect how ripe a tomato is, then have the gentle dexterity to remove it from the plant without ripping apart the leaves and the stem.

“When I walk through a greenhouse," Van de Vegte says. “I’m always looking for opportunities to automate, starting with repetitive motion where an operator is taking one plant out of a box, sticking it in another package, putting a label on it or so on, and then doing the same thing over and over again.”

So much for those stereotypical images of dairy farmers with a bucket at the cow’s udder.

“My arms aren’t strong enough anymore,” jokes Gerhard Ritzema.