National push for automation reaches farms, as human workforce heads out to pasture.
OBIHIRO, Japan—It’s milking time at the Kato farm, but when a Holstein ambles into the milking pen, nobody is there. A robot shoots out four arms and attaches a suction tube to each teat while she enjoys a tasty treat. Within 10 minutes, it is the next cow’s turn.
The Kato family invested about $2 million to build a shed that relies on a pair of $230,000 robots to milk some 90 cows and an $18,000 robot to help feed them. Here on the northern island of Hokkaido, whose flat farmlands laid out in neat grids resemble Wisconsin more than Japan’s main island, hundreds of the robots have been enlisted in recent years because human help is hard to find.
“We have to change the way we live and the way we work,” said Kenichi Kato, 67 years old, who started his farm with three cows more than 40 years ago. “Some people may say that doesn’t apply to dairy farms, but we’ll never get anywhere that way. Young people won’t come.”
Getting robots to milk Elsie-san is the kind of investment that just might rescue Japan. The country is struggling to deal with its declining population, and there is a problem even with those who are still working: They are only about two-thirds as productive as Americans, on average, says the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Agriculture is at the bottom of the heap, with the average American farmer producing 40 times as much as the average Japanese farmer, according to Toyo University economist Miho Takizawa.
Scale is a big reason. The average rice farm in Japan is just a few acres, whereas an American corn or wheat farmer can till thousands of acres with high-efficiency combines.
Now a labor crunch is forcing Japanese businesses of all sizes to step up capital spending on robots and other information technology to speed everyday tasks such as delivering packages and taking sushi orders at conveyer-belt restaurants.
If you ask Japanese companies what they are investing in, “it’s all IT capex—replacing humans with machines,” said Goldman Sachs strategist Kathy Matsui.
A recent push by the government to restrict extreme working hours following a rash of suicides linked to overwork has added to the pressure. “If you’re going to maintain output, you’ve got to boost productivity,” Ms. Matsui said.
The Bank of Japan says labor productivity is improving thanks in part to companies’ software investment, which has risen the past two years and is expected to rise 8.1% in the current fiscal year.
Dairy farmers have long relied on milking machines, but even that requires a lot of work by hand. At an older cow shed on the Kato family farm, someone has to hook up the machine to each teat.
Fully robotic milkers first took hold in Europe in the 1990s. The number of the robots used in Japan has doubled in the past two or three years to more than 500, according to Masao Nishimura of Hokkaido’s Cornes Ag. Corp., which imports the machine used by Mr. Kato, made by Dutch manufacturer Lely International NV.
One reason for the increase: Farmers who are trying to get bigger and more efficient can tap government funds for up to half the price of a robot milker.
The milking robot is the size of a small truck. Before milking, a unit extends under the cow and cleans her udder; tubes carry the milk to a refrigerator. The machine also checks the cow’s identity from tags on her ears and stores data on each cow’s production.
The Katos also bought an R2-D2-sized robot that rolls up and down the shed every two hours pushing feed closer to the cows’ enclosure so they can keep munching.
The family now has about twice as many cows producing milk without having to add any people.
Mr. Kato’s son Masaharu said he was working from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day before introducing the robot shed four years ago. Now the cows in the robot shed require only about three or four hours a day of care, and he can head home around 6:30 or 7 p.m., giving him more time at night with his five children.
Robot labor has also enabled the family to branch out beyond milk. Masaharu’s younger sister, Yoshie, makes cheese sold under the Kato name at a handful of shops in Hokkaido, including at the Sapporo airport.
“Installing the robot made more time for me, so I was able to focus on dairy products and cheese production,” she said. She borrows space in a cheese-making plant rented from the city, but in a year she hopes to open her own factory on the Kato homestead where she can produce cheese, butter and other dairy products with milk from the Katos’ cows.
“We want to automate whatever we can in the new factory,” she said. Still, for final quality control, “it has to be a human who tastes it and smells it and looks at it.”
Other Japanese companies are experimenting with automating jobs previously thought to require the human touch. Convenience store chain Lawson Inc. in late April began a trial at three Tokyo stores in which customers can scan their own items and pay with a smartphone—similar to supermarkets with self-checkout but eliminating the need to stand in line.
There is still a long way to go for many Japanese service industries or farms to reach U.S. levels of productivity, and the declining population of places like Hokkaido can make the problem worse. In 2016, the local rail company reported that about one-eighth of its stations, 58 in total, had one passenger or less a day. Many remain open today because it takes time to get people to accept the closure of their local stations, said a spokesman for the company, JR Hokkaido.
For the Katos, who also grow corn and other crops on their 210 acres, using machines wisely is the key to keeping the farm going in future generations.
“I feel that people in the future will stop doing jobs that require work from morning till night, 365 days,” said Kenichi Kato. “A job with some breathing room allows for family love and family time.”
By: Peter Landers
Source: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL