Cows win over crowds at robotic demonstration

There’s lots to amaze and amuse at the Ploughing Championships

Where else would you get it? Hundreds of people were gathered around a shed in Ratheniska, intently watching a herd of 40 cows. Occasionally a cow approached a cubicle. The gate opened automatically and she stepped inside. “Ooh,” said some people. A robotic arm reached out to clean her udders and the milking cluster magically attached to the cow’s teats. “Aah,” said other people and settled in to watch the cow being milked. It’s a far cry from the bucket and stool, and the kicking heifer.

This peaceful scene at the National Ploughing Championships was brought to us by Lely who make robotic milking systems. This means that a farmer can roll over in bed at 6am as his cows amble into the milking parlour to be milked.

The cows wear electronic collars that record all their movements and the farmer can read all about it on his mobile device. Before we know it the cows will be tweeting and posting selfies on Facebook.

The cows at the National Ploughing Championships studiously ignored the growing audience and seemed, to this observer, to have acquired the ennui of supermodels. The fame had probably gone to their heads after they got a Garda escort from Portlaoise to the site on Friday, having become ensnared in M50 traffic. "It's the future," said Eddie Kelly from Wicklow after watching the robotic milking.

Newfangled machines
He recalled milking cows by hand when he was six and said people were giving demonstrations of newfangled portable milking machines in the 1960s. "It's progress. You could pay between €150,000 and €200,000 for one but that wouldn't put off a big dairy man."


Earlier a row of men in white coats stood waiting for President Michael D Higgins. They were ploughing stewards who wanted to show him a succession of beautifully ploughed furrows. The president had arrived at the championships and all was well with the world.

“The weather is good and it will be a wonderful championships,” he said. Mr Higgins gets 150 invitations to attend events every week but he said the Ploughing Championships, along with the Bloom festival, came top of his list. “I think it’s the combination of one’s mind and one’s hands . . . There’s something very authentic about the slow way that people look at nature reproducing itself through the seasons.”

Later he regaled the crowds with a speech that managed to quote American poet Wendell Berry and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and included a smattering of Irish. He also approvingly quoted the words of this paper's former agriculture correspondent Seán MacConnell who died earlier this month.

Observing the phenomenon of the ploughing, Mr Mac- Connell had written that for those who attended the ploughing, no explanation was necessary. To those who did not, explanation was impossible. "The only question is, are ye going to the Ploughing?" Mr Higgins said to cheers.

Strong attendance
It seemed that half the country went to the Ploughing yesterday with a bumper first day attendance of 81,000.

With traffic moving well and dry weather, it was one of the best opening days the organisers could have hoped for. RTÉ had plenty of its crew there too. Tomorrow Joe Duffy hosts Liveline from the site.

Expect him to receive a call from a herd of disgruntled cows, complaining about not being able to chew their cud in peace.

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times