Livestock News

British Columbia site becomes North America’s largest robotic milking research facility


The University of British Columbia Dairy Education and Research Center is about to become the largest robotic milking research facility in North America with the addition of six GEA DairyRobot R9500 box robots. Though a new partnership between GEA and UBC, the doors will open to research opportunities, attracting more students, and providing new educational experiences.

The UBC Dairy Center is known as a leader in dairy cattle welfare and behavior, reproduction, and nutrient recovery research, attracting students from around the globe. GEA is one of the world’s largest systems suppliers for the food, beverage, and pharmaceutical sectors.

“Robots provide an immense amount of data and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of understanding and using it in daily cow management,” says Stuart Marshall, GEA AMS business development manager.

The idea of transitioning to robotic milking came about three years ago when the University was looking to achieve phosphorus sustainability, address labor challenges, and upgrade its 20-year-old parlor. UBC worked with GEA and their local GEA dealer, Pacific Dairy Center, to plan a layout that met their research needs with a goal to begin milking this winter.

“Becoming a research farm milking 100 percent of our herd with robots is significant as it is representative of dairy farms adapting to robotics worldwide,” says Nelson Dinn, UBC business operations manager. “We want to position the UBC Dairy Center as a technology hub at the forefront of dairy cattle research globally.”

Image courtesy of the University of British Columbia

The retrofit project will have a flexible design incorporating a total of six GEA robots in two existing research barns, housing about 250 lactating cows, along with one training robot. The six-row main barn is set up in quadrants, making it easy to incorporate a robot in each pen. UBC will add two more robots in their second barn — a four-row barn with drive-through feeding and individual feeding boxes for measuring intakes on one side.

“Experimental design was a priority in our planning,” says Ronaldo Cerri, UBC director and associate professor in dairy cattle reproduction. “As a research facility, having multiple individual robot pens for replication is important to strengthen our research projects.”

Research for the real world

“By investing in robotic milking, one of our goals is to maintain current total milk output by increasing milk production per cow while reducing overall herd size,” says Dinn. “This means we can lower water use over time, be more efficient with manure management, and explore nutrient extraction. …

“We’re a research farm, but we are also a commercial farm and we have to be financially sustainable– this keeps us honest in the dairy farmer’s eye.”

In addition to learning and sharing within the dairy industry, public education is also a focus for the university. They look forward to bringing new attention and experiences to thousands of people who visit the Dairy Center annually for farm tours.

“The possibilities are endless when it comes to studying animal welfare, cow longevity and increasing efficiency,” says Cerri. “We’d like to take what we’ve learned with conventional milking and dive deeper using new data we can obtain from automated milking systems. We don’t have all the research ideas in mind today, but with a world-class facility using modern milking technology, we’ll continue attracting top students and with top students come great ideas.”

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