SAINT-ALBERT, QC -- Nineteen Lely robots milk the cows at Quebec's largest dairy farm -- all 1,100 of them.
Operated by Landry brothers Carl, Daniel and Eric at the spread established by their father, Jean-Marie, in 1960, Ferme Landrynoise has taken farm automation to a scale not usually seen in the sector.
In addition to the robotic milkers, a pair of Lely "Juno" feed sweepers trundle down the alleyways of the two main production barns -- like big, red R2D2's on steroids -- pushing silage back toward the cattle.
As for the human workers on site, only one person oversees both production barns at any given time, according to Lely Canada general manager Jerry Claessens, on hand for a Nov. 19 open house event that drew over 1,000 visitors to Ferme Landrynoise. "From midnight until 5 a.m., there is no one in the barn," added Claessens.
More than 1.1-million litres of milk is produced annually per employee, such are the labour efficiencies inherent to the operation. The robots collect an average 34 litres daily from each cow in the Holstein herd.
This year, the farm completed the transition to full robotic operation, installing nine Lely A3 Next-model units in the older of its two production barns and removing the double-18 milking parlour that previously serviced the 550 animals inside the 1980s-era structure. One of the new robots is used to collect the colostrum milk of newly freshened cows exclusively.
The predecessor parlour had been reserved for cows their first 30 to 60 days of lactation - even as the rest of the herd began to be milked robotically in 2004, when Ferme Landrynoise undertook a major expansion
On the other side of the barnyard stands the result of that $6-million effort: a sprawling production barn that originally included 10 Lely Astronaut robots for 650 cows. But as part of this year's project, those machines have been upgraded to the latest Lely model (A3 Next). Changes were also made in the way the animals access the robots, eliminating sorting gates in favour of a "free-flow traffic system" that has proven superior, according to Claessens.
"It's better for me. I prefer to see the robots," said Daniel Landry, explaining how the inside of a robotic barn is "very happy, relaxed, no stress, no crying."
He was referring to both the animals and the people on site.
Claessens acknowledged the farm's importance as a showcase for Lely, noting it represents the largest single installation of Lely robots in the world.
"We are working on some systems in Belarus that will be on the same scale," Claessens said.
A 12-robot farm in upstate New York is next largest, he said.
"There are 24 farms in the world with eight or more robots," added Guillaume Peeters, Lely sales manager for Quebec and the Maritimes.
In the hope of making greater inroads in the U.S., Lely also plans on opening a factory in that country, he said.
Each Lely milker robot includes a computerized feeder, and Guillaume emphasized the importance of ensuring each cow receives a significant portion of its nutrition from the device while milking. He suggested 18 to 20 per cent of the protein in the animal's diet must come from the robot. That fact, and not the urge to be milked, is what ensures the animal consistently returns to the robot, he said.
But robotic milking isn't the only innovative aspect at Ferme Landrynoise, which grows all of its own feed on 4,000 acres.
The farm employs a manure separation system made by GEA Houle. Automatically scraped from the free-stall areas, the manure is ultimately conveyed to the separator, which squeezes the material through a series of rollers until it comprises 34 per cent solids.
Sylvain Daigneault, local territory manager for GEA Houle, said the Landrys reuse the manure as bedding - even without composting it - in some of their six barns (which includes heifer barns).
The farm also uses a DeLaval automated feeding system for calves.
Since 1989, the farm has been trucking its own milk to the processor, and 65 per cent of that milk is Kosher. A rabbi lives on the farm and spends some time in the barn almost every day to meet the requirements of Kosher production.
Daniel Landry said that while he would like to milk more cows, production quota simply can't be acquired in meaningful quantities anymore. "It's crazy," he said.
However, he said the family may be interested in setting up cheese production at the farm.
Imagine that, a place called Saint Albert with a cheese factory - Saint Albert, Quebec, that is.