It's designed to grow grains for livestock while saving farmers money on labor. But that means it's also coming for some human jobs.
In 2011, the number of people on Earth passed 7 billion and by 2050 that number is expected to jump up to almost 10 billion. Aside from trying to feed all these people, we'll still need to feed livestock as well (at least given current dietary needs and preferences). One efficient way to do this is through vertical farming—growing plants on trays indoors, which has the advantage of using far less space than traditional farming. But even this requires lots of human labor and equipment that farmers and ranchers can't always afford.
Enter California agricultural tech company FodderWorks (a division of Simply Country, Inc). FodderWorks has created a fully automated robotic fodder-growing system that can produce daily quantities of fresh, non-genetically-modified food for livestock. It takes a system that already greatly reduces water and land use, and maximizes it even further, by making it faster. You can watch the robot work in a dramatic video posted by Fodder Works on YouTube (above). It's like Ridley Scott's take on ag-tech.
"Really any type of cereal grain can sprout in the system."
Sprouts—known as fodder when given to livestock—are increasingly being used by farmers to feed their animals, because of the good health it gives them, and because of how economically beneficial they are to produce. This system can even be used to grow leafy greens and other produce for humans too.
The most commonly used grain to make fodder is barley, because of its high nutrient content, and its availability (it's also the most popular grain for brewing beer). "Really any type of cereal grain can sprout in the system," FodderWorks General Manager Kyle Chittock told Motherboard in a phone conversation. "But just from a nutritional standpoint, barley works very well for all types of livestock and actually if you look at research on growing sprouts for human consumption, barley is one of the healthiest things out there. A superfood."
The process used to grow the fodder is simple, cheap and highly efficient. Grains are spread out on trays, the trays are stacked on shelves, and the trays washed in light and water from overhead lamps and sprayers. By the sixth day, the trays are each filled with a mat of bright green sprouts—that looks kind of like it could be on your front lawn. These squares of fresh, living sprouts are then given right to the animals for consumption. No extra fertilizers. No pesticides. Six cents a pound.
"If you take the average dairy in California, they have over a thousand cows, and they don't want to have to hire a bunch of people just to produce feed."
The catch, however, has always been the amount of labor involved. "The largest system we've installed, that's manually operated, is out there producing five tons a day," said Chittock. "But at that scale there's a lot of labor involved. If you take the average dairy in California, they have over a thousand cows, and they don't want to have to hire a bunch of people just to produce feed. That's not what they want to focus their time and energy on." So the team at FodderWorks created the automated robotic fodder system to nix that labor cost for the average farmer, a move bound to come with some controversy amid the larger debate about the steady automation of human jobs in America.
Chittock contends that FodderWorks' robotic system isn't taking away from any jobs, because this type of feed production simply hasn't been done before. He also pointed out that not only can many individual farmers not afford to employ a large workforce just to create animal feed, but in fact, the robotic fodder system "allows our customers to be more efficient so they can grow their businesses, which in turn creates even more agricultural jobs," Chittock said. "We sell a product with a benefit to the consumer," he continued "which in turn employs a manufacturing team to assemble a product, employs the steel supplier, aluminum suppliers, the irrigation companies we buy parts from, electronics companies, designers, marketers, and numerous others."
Working like a robot waiter, the machine slides along a track between the rows of sprouts, busily moving trays around on its forklift-like hands. It picks up an empty tray, fills it with grain, shuttles it back to its shelf home, and then returns six days later to harvest the little rug of sprouts growing on it. It drops the 7-pound square of fodder onto a conveyor belt, where a waiting tractor or person will be there to pick it up and take it to the livestock for lunch. "It basically does everything involved with the regular production of the sprouts" said Chittock.
FodderWorks will debut the machine at the World Ag Expo in California this February. Costs start at $233,000 for a system that produces one ton of fodder a day. The more a system produces, however, the cheaper the machine will be, because of the greater efficiency. For a 12-ton-a-day system, the robot would cost under $83,000 per ton.
Dry feeds have traditionally been used because they can be stored. "But they're not the healthiest," said Chittock, adding "If you look at it from a people perspective, it's kind of a given that fresh fruit is better than dried fruit." Now, a giant robot can help that along.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.