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Allan Thomson

By Emma Geldart

From hand milking with a metal pail and wooden stool to tie-stall and parlour systems, the methods dairy farmers have used to milk their cows has certainly evolved over the years. While the most recent milking system introduced to the dairy industry may help free up a bit of time for dairy farmers, there is still no shortage of hard work.

A number of farmers are now adopting an automatic milking system and with it comes a few questions, especially around the environmental impact of the new system.

Allan Thomson, a PhD student at Dalhousie University Faculty of Agriculture, is looking to provide answers to some of those questions. Allan’s research area is energy conservation and under the supervision of Dr. Kenny Corscadden, he is exploring which milking systems have the largest water footprint per kilogram of milk and evaluating energy use and changes in labour requirements.

“The research objective is to provide a quantitative and qualitative evaluation of the different milking systems within Nova Scotia in relation to water use, with a focus on Robotic Milking Systems, or Automatic Milking Systems and how they compare to traditional systems,” Allan explains.

Traditionally, dairy farmers have used a tie stall or parlour milking systems. However, in recent years dairy farmers all across Canada are beginning to adopt Automatic Milking Systems (AMS). AMS is a system that allows the cow to voluntarily enter the milking system at a time in which she would like to be milked. Cows are provided with a tailored amount of feed and will go through the milking process from teat cleaning to teat cup placement (using a laser sensor) to the actual milking of the cow, followed by a system rinse once the cow has left the AMS. The system can provide a wealth of data including milk yield, milking time, milk temperature, conductivity (which aids in the detection of mastitis) and cow movement. These systems are entirely automated, eliminating the need for farmers to be on-hand at specific times compared to traditional milking practices of twice, possible three times a day.

While some farmers see incredible benefits to AMS, not all dairy farmers feel the same. Pros and cons can be argued for both traditional and robotic milking systems and it all comes down to the farmer.

 “Some farmers absolutely love having robots installed, others have had them installed but concluded that it doesn’t fit with either them or their cows, and some might have considered installing robots but determined that economically it just doesn’t make sense.” Allan says.

For some farmers, installing the robotic system is simply not feasible. The system is designed to handle a specific number of cows and are an expensive upfront investment comes with the installment so depending on the farmers future plans for both the herd and the farm, AMS may not be in the cards. For others, there may be too much data that the system provides and there is certainly a lot of work that goes into establishing the system properly.  

“Getting cows to take to the system initially can be a challenge both for the farmer and for the cows,” Allan says.

If farmers do decide to move forward with installment, one advantage of the system is the flexibility it can create in a farmer’s day. Once the cows are established on the system, the farmer does not need to be there to monitor the cows and be hands-on during milking. Although there is increased flexibility in a farmer’s day, it certainly does not reduce the amount of time a farmer will spend on farm.

“There are always tasks needing done!,” Allan explains. “Although the system introduces flexibility, farmers have to be on call 24/7 with the robotic system in case of any system malfunctions. So whether a farmer should go down the route of robots or not will really depends on the farmer, their preferences, the farm infrastructure and ultimately what is right for the farmer’s cows.”

As Allan looks a bit closer at AMS, he explains that his research is not necessarily trying to solve any existing issues, rather he is aiming to provide more information to Nova Scotia dairy farmers on robotic milking systems.

“Research has found that the main reasons for dairy farmers expressing interest or adopting robotic milking systems is to do with the flexibility the system offers, especially in relation to labour requirements and time requirements,” Allan explains. “Largely, the research isn’t trying to solve any issues, however, it is aiming to provide more information to dairy farmers around robotic milking systems and how they differ from conventional systems in terms of water use, energy use, labour, time management and lifestyle changes.”

Allan is first and foremost looking at water use in an automatic system, but energy use and labour management are just as important. His research, predominantly aimed at the provincial level, is hoped to have relevance in the Atlantic region of Canada.

“The research is aiming to provide information to the dairy industry surrounding the change, if any, in water use when moving from a traditional milking system to a robotic system,” Allan explains. “Water sourcing is not an issue on Nova Scotia dairy farms nor is it a key reason for farmers adopting milking robots, but I hope that the research will at least give additional insight into water and energy use and what the changes in labour and time management are. However, water use and conservation is an important issue in a wider context for the province and agriculture in general.”

Allan explains that this research idea came from discussions with the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture. While robot milking systems are still fairly new to Nova Scotia, it is expected that these systems will become more popular in Atlantic Canada in the coming years. The need for knowledge around this new system is crucial. Allan’s research is funded through Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture’s Water Resource Program. The program aims to “fund projects which are of strong strategic value related to stewardship and management of provincial water resources to protect agriculture and recreational fishing.”

“There was interest to fund a project that focused on water use on farms with Robotic Milking Systems as these systems are relatively new within the province and it is expected that the province may see an uptake in the number of systems over the next ten years,” Allan explains.

Allan conducts his research through farm visits to collect data. He has reached out to numerous farmers around the province and has enlisted the help of Dairy Farmers of Nova Scotia to reach even more. In addition to that, Allan is looking at and comparing data that was collected through a previous program.

“A number of years ago, my supervisor, Dr. Kenny Corscadden, ran a very successful program around energy efficiency on dairy farms,” Allan explains. “He performed energy audits on a number of farms which I will revisit as data on water use was partially collected from a number of these farms. This will also allow me to see if any energy use changes have been made and do a follow up review at the same time.”

While the focus of his research is on existing robotic milking systems, Allan is looking at farms both with and without robots to compare water use between the two. On the non-robot side, he is looking at all milking parlour set-ups. At this point, his research is non-conclusive.

“I don’t quite have enough information yet to give you a clear picture on footprints at the moment,” Allan says. “All of the farms have been too different in system set-up, however once I’ve done a few more, I should have a better picture. Hopefully in the coming months, I will have concrete results on water and energy use in AMS in Nova Scotia.”

While different farmers may prefer methods, one thing remains the same; dairy farmers in Nova Scotia are committed to producing local, high-quality, delicious milk available to all Nova Scotians. So the next time you pick up a glass of milk, take a minute to think of the hard work that goes into milk production despite which system is used for milking.

If you have any interest in participating in the project you can contact Allan via email at allan.thomson@dal.ca or on 902-890-2951