New Brunswick

Robot milkers gaining in popularity at dairy farms in N.B.

Dairy farmers across New Brunswick may be getting a little more sleep these days thanks to robot milkers.

$200K machines changing work and family lives of growing number of farmers

A growing number of New Brunswick dairy farmers are going high-tech, using robot milkers.

The contraptions are changing the way farmers like Steve Michaud of the New Brunswick Dairy Farmers both work and live.

The robot milker machine towers over the cows, leaving only their legs and hooves visible. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)
"It's taken on quite rapidly," he said, noting more than 20 farms have purchased the machines.

"It's certainly given a new breath of life to dairy farms," he said.

Joas van Oord's farm in Springfield is among them.

A robot milker towers over his cattle and one by one his estimated 60 cows mosey up to the contraption. A large metal arm reaches out and goes straight for the udder of one of them.

"Inside that milker is squeezing the actual teat," said van Oord, who has lived on the farm his entire life and took over the business from his father.

Van Oord used to wake up at the crack of dawn every day to milk his cows and it would take him hours.

But a few months ago, he invested in the robot milker and now he can leave the barn while the machine does the hard labour.

It was very difficult, wherever you were, you had to milk at 4 o'clock, so it didn't matter what you were doing, you had to leave and you had to go milk. It never ended and it was every day.- Joas van Oord, dairy farmer

It cost more than $200,000, but van Oord says it's a small price to pay for his sanity.

"It's not a cheaper way to milk cows, it's actually more expensive. It costs a lot to put a robot in. But as a dairy farmer, it was very difficult to go somewhere. It was very difficult, wherever you were, you had to milk at 4 o'clock, so it didn't matter what you were doing, you had to leave and you had to go milk. It never ended and it was every day," he said.

"Those people who work at home know, if you live somewhere and you work somewhere, it can become overwhelming after a while and almost too much," said van Oord.

"I think this [robot] puts a spring in the step again and allows you to start looking at different things and start dreaming again and making sure that you see the bigger picture."

Cows seem happier too

Van Oord's wife, Lisa, says it has also changed their family life.

Less time milking means her husband can spend more time with their four children, she said.

"We always had meals together, but now it's more relaxed, more concentrated time."

The cows also seem more at ease with the machine, which is triggered to begin milking when the cows begin to eat.

"For a person who's lactated, it's nice to choose when to milk, and the cows are happier."

The robot hasn't helped the farm produce more milk yet. But van Oord hopes that will change as the cows continue to get used to the machine.

That has been Richard Boonstoppel's experience at his farm in Keswick Ridge.

Boonstoppel was the first farmer in New Brunswick to install a robot milker.

"We were milking twice a day before, and then once we switched to the robot, cows on average could milk 3.1 times a day, and so that means they come in here more often, they give a little more milk," he said.

"Our production probably went up 10, 15 per cent."