You could say that the origin story of the Rova Barn robot begins with a young child from a dairy farm who wanted to go to the beach, or on a family trip, or just to Grandma’s for Sunday dinner. But trafficking needs adventure above all else.
“We didn’t go on vacation when I was a kid,” said Daniel Badiou, a fifth generation farmer who founded Ukko Robotics with his partner Katrina Jean-Laflamme.
A mechanically minded child, he realized, without automation, farmers and parents alike would still be tied to the farm and the milking schedule.
Today, of course, robotic milking machines exist. And now, thanks to Badiou and Jean-Laflamme, pasture poultry can also benefit from an automated life with the Grange Rova.
Badiou said he was a handyman as a child and wanted to formalize his mechanical abilities. He turned to mechanical engineering with a specialization in mechatronics to improve himself in the construction of objects and thus help farmers to be more efficient.
During this time, he returned every summer to his family farm and undertook projects. In 2015, this project raised chickens on pasture. Internet research found that mobile farmers grew like wheelbarrows.
“It can be fun for a few months, but I’m not going to do it for another 10 or 20 years,” Badiou said. “Let’s automate it.”
He built a prototype robo-coop in his father’s workshop over a weekend and put it to work.
It worked and Badiou realized he might have a bankable product in his hands. Jean-Laflamme joined Badiou in Manitoba, and together they began to perfect their prototype.
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The Rova Barn is a programmable hen house with self-moving, self-watering, self-feeding and temperature regulation. The barn crawls over the pasture assigned to it at a programmed speed depending on the stocking rate and grass conditions – this allows the chickens to fresh grass and insects regularly and prevents overgrazing.
When the barn reaches the end of the pasture, it moves and walks in the opposite direction.
Badiou and Jean-Laflamme know they are working because they raise their own chickens and pigs in their prototypes. They then sell the meat and use the income to continue research and development.
“I firmly believe that if it is to be built by someone, you have to test it to really know what is in it,” Badiou said.
Poultry and grazing pork remain a niche industry in Manitoba where the supply of chicken is managed and non-quota farmers are limited to less than 1,000 birds.
However, interest in raising poultry and pigs on grass increases with interest in regenerative agriculture, Badiou said.
Some regenerative vegetable farms, for example, like to integrate animals into their operations. A vegetable farm can farm the Rova barn and chickens on a piece of land one year, and then plant that area with vegetables the next year, Badiou said.
The fertilizer that chickens add is pretty obvious. Badiou’s mother threw a Rova Barn prototype from her lawn after leaving lush green rectangles all over it.
Interest in pasture poultry is highest in Ontario, which has an established framework for “artisanal” poultry, and the United States where many states can keep chickens outdoors year-round, said Badiou.
Ukko Robotics may be a bit early on the scene, Badiou admitted, but when the time comes, they’ll be ready.
Risks and Rewards
“(Finding mentors is) harder than you might think, especially in Manitoba,” said Badiou.
People often don’t understand what they are trying to do.
“It’s difficult, and it’s even more difficult to get investments because of it,” he said.
However, happy customers are worth it. The same is true of seeing pigs and chickens excited by fresh grass and bugs.
“How happy they were. It kind of bolstered what we were doing, ”Badiou said.
Last August, Ukko Robotics branched out to add the Vendii “smart locker” to its product line. Vendii was designed as a solution for direct sales farmers to facilitate and automate customer pickup.
In a press release, Ukko Robotics explained that the lockers have several locked compartments that can be opened with a code sent to the buyer. Lockers are temperature controlled or uncontrolled.
Ukko is currently testing the beta version of Vendii before its commercial release.