An Agassiz-based robotics company is on the forefront of the bright future of farming.
West Coast Robotics (WCR) has settled into their new Agassiz home on Davis Lane just off the Lougheed Highway, where it provides sales and service on robotic milking machines, feeders, cow brushes and all things modern dairy farm.
Retired dairy farmer Erik Van Dyk founded West Coast Robotics in 2008, forming one of the first independent Lely dealerships in Canada.
Owner and general manager Brian Rodenburg, who worked for Lely for eight years before working with Van Dyk to establish WCR said Lely once sold directly to farmers. Finding they were not growing fast enough, they moved to independent dealerships in Canada, which is where Van Dyk came in.
WCR may have been established in the District of Kent, but the company has since expanded to Vancouver Island in 2011 and to the Okanagan in 2012.
The company moved from its original Harrison Mills dairy farm location to its Davis Lane property in Agassiz in March.
In addition to a variety of dairy farming supplies and machines, WCR sells, monitors and maintains Lely Astronaut milking systems. Comfortable cows produce more milk, and the Lely Astronaut is designed with the cow’s freedom of choice in mind. The cow chooses when it will eat, rest and be milked.
A cow enters the system through a gate, and food is available at the far end of the system. When the cow goes in to eat, a milking machine on a mechanical arm extends and milks the cow. Project manager Jesse Wheeler estimates it takes about a week for the cow to understand the machine.
Despite dedicating only 24 labour hours a week toward sales, WCR sells between 15 and 25 robotic milking systems every year. The company credits its extensive customer service to the success of their clients and consequently, the company as a whole. WCR technicians keep a close eye on every robotic milking machine they run, offering technical support from their office and dispatching crews across B.C. to offer barn planning advice, training and more. Wheeler estimates half WCR’s employees are from the Agassiz-Harrison area.
Wheeler said technicians are only in the office generally once a week for meetings and restocking but most everything they need are in their specialized vans, enabling them to work remotely. Though it wasn’t quite the same without face time with customers and co-workers, the ability to work remotel enabled WCR to be safe and operate as smoothly as possible during COVID-19.
“Our service team members don’t see other members that much, so that wasn’t a huge adjustment,” he said. “We had on-farm protocols in place pretty quick. We informed the farmer when we would be there and asked they not be around. We sanitized and wore gloves and masks.”
Wheeler said automation on dairy farms eliminates repetitive, tedious tasks and pushes farm growth forward based on collected data from milking machines and other robotics on the farm.
“What we see right now is the currency really is data and what you can do with it,” Wheeler said. “As you look at AI and machine learning, you can start to predict or inform choices to make the farm more profitable. Data collection analysis and the models that are created from that will be the thing that will drive innovation in this industry.”
By letting machines handle the basic tasks, farmers with smaller operations have more time to spend with their families.
“We’ve got some really neat stories of smaller farms; now, they can actually go dirt-biking on the weekend and things like that.”
Those with larger farms can streamline operations and minimize costs.
“(Let’s say) you’re a farmer and you have three really good employees but most of their time is spent doing tedious jobs.,” Wheeler said. “Getting someone to do the tedious work means that now you can take these good people and now they’re not just milkers but farmhands or herdsmen that can help manage the farm better. You can’t deny automation takes jobs. However, that’s in every sector, and I think that has a net positive because then the skill level of people can rise.”
Rodenburg said the dairy robotics market has grown from initial hesitancy to largely embracing the technology for lifestyle and efficiency reasons.
As for the future of WCR, keeping on the cutting edge of innovation in robotics and dairy farming will always be a challenge. However, Rodenburg said it’s the breakneck pace of robotics research and development that keeps WCR staff motivated.
“I think we really do focus on efficiency and using data and just being better all the time,” Rodenburg added. “I think that’s ultimately our culture, and having our staff be on board with that kind of vision and being into that makes it easy.”