BRINSTON — Alexander van der Lely, CEO of the Dutch firm whose technology has revolutionized the dairy industry, checked in last week at the first North American Lely dealership to sell and deploy more than 200 of his company’s cow-milking robots.
The owners of Dundas Agri-Systems Inc. (DAS) welcomed the Lely chief and his regional director for the Americas, Peter Langebeeke, coinciding with the Brinston-based operation’s 10-year anniversary celebration as a Lely dealership, April 15.
van der Lely recounted for Nation Valley News how his father founded the company in 1948, starting with his own design for a single hay rake, branching out into more farm implements through the years and then dairy equipment. “He has more than 10,000 patents to his name,” said the visitor, adding the elder van der Lely began developing their first cow-milking robot in 1985. Today, he said, there are 35,000 Lely robots milking cows in dairy barns around the world.
The company’s robotic offerings have expanded into droid-like feed sweepers and feed dispensing systems that trundle around dairy barns all by themselves, placing nourishment in front of cattle automatically. Being stationary, Lely’s flagship milker robots are not quite as dramatic, although their red colour and crisp steel cladding are suggestive of a cow stall designed by Tony Stark. The milker units rely on the cattle to individually enter the enclosure on their own accord, lured by a tasty feed supplement that arrives at a feed bowl while a robotic arm methodically milks the udder at the business end of the animal. One robot handles about 60 cows.
Relatively new to the lineup is Lely’s manure vacuum robot, the Discovery 120. Likened to a giant-sized ‘Roomba’ but designed to suck up bovine waste, the Discovery should revolutionize barn design by eliminating traditional automated manure scrapers and their corresponding long alleyways. The Discovery doesn’t care if a barn is broken up into a series of smaller, separated areas; as long as the robot has access, it will diligently take away the manure and dump the material into an assigned pumping station. DAS President Luke Geleynse said his company already has two deployed in Ontario barns with an additional 10 units sold this year.
Below, the Lely Discovery 120 manure collector in action.
DAS was better known as the local BouMatic milking equipment vendor — handling typically modern milking parlours and pipelines — when, in 2009, Lely approached them about selling and servicing its robots as well. Lely equipment now accounts for the the bulk of sales at DAS. While the company still handles BouMatic and installed four conventional parlours last year, Geleynse contrasted this with the 27 milker robots DAS also put in during 2018. “And 42 robots the year before that,” he said.
“Last fall, we hit 200 robots installed on 101 dairies. We were the first Lely dealership in North America to hit 200-plus installs,” he noted, adding that by this spring, they had reached 219 units on 109 dairies.
A smiling Geleynse said he’s sometimes asked if they’ve saturated the market because, surely, not too many more Ontario dairy farmers are ready to join the robotic revolution? But he sees nothing but growth in the years ahead, with 85 percent of the province’s dairy farms still untapped. “We have 15 percent market penetration,” he observed, “and everybody’s going this way.” The technology has moved beyond the early adopters and “geeks” to become mainstream, according to Geleynse.
Robotic milking made early inroads in Canada because of the relatively smaller herd sizes and stable milk prices fostered by this country’s supply management system, but Langebeeke touted Lely robots as a way forward for even the very large operations south of the border. In an American marketplace currently saddled by low milk prices, the technology is “a way for the farming community to get a better margin” by cutting labour costs, said the Dutch-born Langebeeke, now based in Naples, Florida.
Conventional wisdom has been that milker robots can’t compete with super-sized U.S. milking parlours staffed by (often) Mexican employees. But quite aside from labour market sensitivities now at play in Trump’s America, robotic proponents maintain their technology now outperforms humans even on that scale. “The cheapest method to go from cow to milk tank is a robot,” Geleynse flatly stated.
Things are going so well for Lely in North America, the company has recently announced plans for a new factory in Pella, Iowa. Based in Maassluis, the Netherlands, Lely’s sales have reached over half a billion euros annually.
As for other things ‘coming down the pipe’ from Lely, the visiting CEO said they see opportunities in the collection and aggregation of data from dairy farms. “Data is an interesting part of our future, also on the service side,” said van der Lely.
Lely robots already supply a slew of individualized data to their farmers, and van der Lely touted this management tool as one of the prime benefits of the technology.
He also noted his company’s recent release of a new turn-key milk- and cheese-processing plant, allowing the farmer to sell finished product to the consumer directly. Seen as a way to counter the trend of declining fluid-milk consumption, “we have our first one in Holland,” reported van der Lely, whose time in Brinston coincided with a Lely farm management conference in Ottawa that week.
Many of DAS’s two dozen employees — as well as a handful of former staff involved with early Lely installations — welcomed the visitors.