Farming’s Robot Idealism

BY JIM WEBSTER

I saw an interesting comment somewhere in the farming press. Apparently in agriculture we’re going to have to get with the programme and adopt more cutting edge technology. The ‘smart home’ is here, we’re now going to have the ‘smart farm’.

Certainly moving to robot milking is now an option for dairy farmers. Economics and other factors might mean it’s not for your farm, but it’s an option on the table. There again, the modern tractor comes with more electronics than you’d need to oversee a moon launch. And of course, HMRC now want us to do our income tax on line because ‘everybody is on line anyway.’ Hmm.

I suspect we have problems with the limited life experience of our ruling class. They’re hooked into a connected world and see progress as happening via that world. At the moment, in the UK, people are slagging off the Covid tracking app. It only works on some phones, it apparently drains your battery and also it may have glitches that the developer forgot to label as features. By definition I haven’t got a phone modern enough to download the app, and even if I did, the phone lives switched off.

But let’s have a comparison. The German app has been launched for more than 100 days. Because they’re efficient and in control, right? Apparently it’s been downloaded 18 million times, for a population of 83 million. In Australia apparently they too are at the cutting edge, with a government that is in control of the virus. Their app, COVIDSafe has been available for months. Ask people and 70% said they’d use it, 40% really downloaded it, and nobody is quite sure how many of them are in point of fact using it.

Yet talk to an MP, a senior civil servant, somebody in the upper echelons of the charity world or the quangocracy, they control their life through their phones. Most MPs are on several WhatsApp groups, some official, some private, some downright conspiratorial. I’ve talked to people who have been in Zoom meetings where there were at least two WhatsApp meetings happening in parallel. In these meetings the participants on the various WhatsApp groups critiqued the Zoom meeting as they participated in it and tried to arrange who said what next.

Fortunately, thanks to our rubbish broadband speed, I appear at Zoom meetings without video (but can see everybody else.) This means that in the boring bits I can do my emails, tidy the office, or during one not especially memorable meeting, just fall asleep.

The problem is that a digitally connected ruling class has lost track of the real world. When some big churches were organising Zoom church services, here we made sure that we phoned (on the landline phone) members of our congregation on a reasonably regular basis. This is because 90% of them are not on line. One or two have smart phones, normally at their daughter’s insistence, but they only ever use them to make phone calls.

It’s the same with our farm accounts. My lady wife prefers to do them on paper so she can see everything at once, without having to scroll backwards and forwards and flick between screens. But even if we did do it on the computer, she’d still have to print them out to send to our accountant because there’s no way we can email them. Then when the accountants have ‘done them’ they have to print them out to send back to us for her to check. Then, when we’re happy, they can send them electronically to the HMRC. The cost of doing this monthly rather than annually is going to be horrendous.

But anyway, back to the smart farm and robotic milking. I always remember my father commenting that when he went into farming, you joined a community. There could be ten or a dozen people living and/or working on a farm. And at various times of year you’d work alongside people from half a dozen neighbouring farms. Me? I’ve spent most of my life ‘lone working.’ My work colleagues tend to be Border Collies. Look on the bright side, I’ve never had to be nice to people and if I’d wanted a proper job I would have worked harder at school.

Now with arable farming, increase the tractor size, improve the electronics, and you can have one man farming an even larger acreage. But with livestock, you really need more people. With robots you can reduce the number of cowmen, but you’ll still need 24/7 coverage in case of breakdown or a cow taking a dislike to the machine. (Which is a pretty reliable way of getting a breakdown.)

The problem with a robot is that I have no doubt it will milk cows perfectly well. They’ll have the ability to produce a lot of data (oh whoopee-doo, even more data to analyse) and they’ll help make you more efficient in a lot of ways. But it’s all they’ll do. They’ll not help you get a heifer in for AI. They’ll not give you a hand by holding a cow whilst you check to see if she’s got a twisted calf-bed.

Indeed I’ve lost track of the number of times my lady wife has been asked to give me a hand calving the cow. If she stands just there and holds the cow’s tail, it has four advantages. The first is that the cow feels a bit outnumbered and is more likely to behave. The second is that because she’s standing just there, the cow isn’t going to move in that direction. So everything becomes so much less exciting. The third is that she can pass me calving ropes and similar without me having to move and take my hand out because I’ve finally found the calf’s front feet. And the fourth advantage? Have you ever been slapped across the face with a cow’s tail that’s loaded with muck, blood and miscellaneous other substances?

Try and find a robot who can do that job.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.