John Nalivka: The role of robotics in the livestock and meat industry

As U.S. agriculture has developed and U.S. farmers and ranchers have become the most efficient producers of food in the world, there have been a number of defining milestones along the path. Mechanization in the early 1900s was probably the first of these milestones and there have many more that have affected every aspect of plant and animal agriculture. Whether it is disease management, soil health, animal health, or genetic improvement – the list goes on and on – research to solve an immediate problem often leads to developments that increase production efficiency.

Technology has always played a major role in agriculture and this role will become increasingly important as producers and food processors take on the challenges that labor, worker safety, cost management, and consumer demand pose, just to name a few. And, in the face of the ongoing debate over immigration law, labor will continue to move the front burner.

It isn’t earth shattering to say that immigrants are the primary source of labor to the entire supply chain of the U.S. food industry and subsequently, immigration policy is a key issue to agriculture. While the politicians and lawyers can haggle over immigration law, farmers, ranchers, and food processors still have business to run – every day.

Consequently, solutions are imperative and one solution is robotics. I believe technology will speed its application in both production and processing. We have already seen this in the dairy industry in the milking parlor. Robotic application in the meat packing industry is growing. A recent article in a meat industry trade magazine presented the current applications in the packing plants. Taking that information one step further, one can envision the presence of robotic application growing faster with labor replacement becoming the driver.

While mechanization changed the face of agriculture at the turn of the 20th century, the challenges of labor were only beginning. I am not suggesting that every job in production agriculture or the processing industry can be accomplished with robots that will replace human beings, but I do believe that technology and robotics offer one solution to current and future labor shortages. Technology is affecting every aspect of our lives today and like it or not, the train has already left the station!