After milking cows for 47 years, farmer Percy is being replaced... by a robot

Farmer Percy Parker has spent 47 years milking dairy cows at Burwood Hall Farm in Mileham. Picture:

Farmer Percy Parker has spent 47 years milking dairy cows at Burwood Hall Farm in Mileham. Picture: Matthew Usher.

A Norfolk dairy farmer who has been milking cows for 47 years said he is happy to step aside in the name of progress – as he is being replaced by a robotic milking machine.

Farmer Percy Parker has spent 47 years milking dairy cows at Burwood Hall Farm in Mileham. Pictured

Farmer Percy Parker has spent 47 years milking dairy cows at Burwood Hall Farm in Mileham. Pictured is Percy, left, with farm ownerTom Butler-Stoney. Picture: Matthew Usher.

It's a futuristic fear which will chill the spine of many modern workers – the idea that, one day, your job could be done by a robot.

But for veteran Norfolk dairy farmer Percy Parker, this scenario has become a welcome reality.

After 47 years of milking Guernsey cows at RB Stoney and Son at Burwood Hall farm in Mileham, the inevitable march of mechanisation will see him replaced with a robotic milking machine in March.

But the 68-year-old is more than happy to step aside in the name of progress, having earned a break from the early-morning starts and the physical demands of the job which has become his lifelong passion.

Farmer Percy Parker has spent 47 years milking dairy cows at Burwood Hall Farm in Mileham. Percy pic

Farmer Percy Parker has spent 47 years milking dairy cows at Burwood Hall Farm in Mileham. Percy pictured in the old milking parlour. Picture: Matthew Usher.

'I just think it is time I took things a bit easier,' he said. 'I am quite happy about that.

'It is definitely getting harder to get up in the mornings. I get up at 4.10am, and that was six days a week until three years ago. I went down to five days a week when I was 65.

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'I am not going to miss anything. I am looking forward to a bit more leisure time with my wife. I have milked most Sundays, so it will be nice to have a few Sundays off. There are times when there are other things we could have done, but work comes first.

'I am not dreading it. I feel that it is time I eased up. I am fine, as long as it all works OK.

Farmer Percy Parker has spent 47 years milking dairy cows at Burwood Hall Farm in Mileham. Picture:

Farmer Percy Parker has spent 47 years milking dairy cows at Burwood Hall Farm in Mileham. Picture: Matthew Usher.

'I expect I will still wake up at 4am and think: 'I wonder if it is working alright?' It will take a day or two to get used to it.'

Mr Parker, joined the farm full-time in 1969, having earlier carried out jobs there as a schoolboy. His wife Linda has also been working there since 1986. He said he hopes to 'keep his hand in' as he moves into semi-retirement.

'The robot is only going to do the milking,' he said. 'There is still a lot of husbandry work to do, and I still want it (the dairy) to succeed.'

Tom Butler-Stoney, who runs the business with his brother Mark, said the upgrade to robotic machines would be the biggest change at the dairy since his late father Richard Butler-Stoney built the herring-bone milking parlour in 1962.

The new robotic machinery, to be installed at the end of March, will operate autonomously 24 hours a day, recognising each animal from its ear tag, recalling its milking history and locating its teats before the laser-guided robotic arms apply the milking cups. Then, the machine will draw, check and store the milk, record the yield, and notify the operator if there are any problems.

The £110,000 investment comes despite the continuing difficulties in the dairy sector, prompted by months of tumbling milk prices.

But Mr Butler-Stoney said he was convinced the time was right to invest in the future.

'The thought process really was that we either keep going or we don't,' he said. 'We have to take a fairly long-term view, and we have got to change things somehow.

'I think Percy wants a timescale to go, I think the technology is now right, and I think the economics are going to stack up.

'I have got four alternatives. One is to keep Percy going – but we can't ask him to milk six days a week when he is over 70.

'Second would be to find an established cowman somewhere else, who would have his own ideas, but a lot of what we do is very old-fashioned and idiosyncratic, so I'm not sure how well that would work.

'Third, we could do what we did 50 years ago and find a tractor driver who we could train up. Or, fourth we could look at these robots and change the way we work.

'Rather than having so many hours tied up each day, we have got to work much more effectively with machinery and we need to be much more data-orientated.

'We are already monitoring movement electronically, which tells us when the cows are bulling. For years and years, Percy did six days milking a week, so he knew the cows very well and knew how they would behave. But we won't get anyone doing that now, and I won't ask it of anyone.

'So the whole the thing needs to become much more data-intensive, and there is less relying on the information in one person's head.

'We have got to re-work the personal relationship with the cows, and they have got to be moved on to new people, however we replace Percy, whether that is with people or computers.'

The farm installed a computer system three years ago to gather electronic data on cattle movements, bulling and udder health.

The new robotic milkers will be an extension of this technology – but Mr Parker said, sometimes, there was no substitute for decades of practical experience.

'Even now, we have got this computer, but there are times when I can tell things are happening before the computer does,' he said.

'I can tell when one is going to come bulling before Tom's new machines do, just by the different way the cow is acting. I know the cow and I know how it will act. But I think when I am not here the data will help, because it will show up these things for the others.'

Is your farm introducing new techniques or technology to improve efficiency? Contact chris.hill@archant.co.uk.