One could say the origin story of the robotic Rova Barn begins with a young kid on a dairy farm who wanted to go to the beach, or on a family road trip, or just to Grandma’s for Sunday dinner. But milking needs trumped adventure.
“We didn’t go on holidays when I was a kid,” said Daniel Badiou, a fifth-generation farmer who founded Ukko Robotics with partner Katrina Jean-Laflamme.
A mechanically minded kid, he realized without automation, farmers like his parents would always be tied to the farm and the milking schedule.
Today, of course, robotic milkers exist. And now, thanks to Badiou and Jean-Laflamme, pastured poultry can also benefit from automated living with the Rova Barn.
Badiou said he was a tinkerer as a kid and wanted to make his mechanical ability more official. He went into mechanical engineering with a focus in mechatronics to get better at building things, and so he could help farmers be more efficient.
Meanwhile, he’d return each summer to his family farm and would take on projects. In 2015, that project was raising pastured chickens. Internet research turned up mobile coops farmers would push around like wheelbarrows.
“It might be fun for a couple of months, but I’m not going to do this for 10 or 20 years,” Badiou said. “Let’s automate it.”
He built a prototype robo-coop in his dad’s workshop over a weekend and put it to work.
It worked, and Badiou realized he might have a bankable product on 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 self-moving, self-watering, self-feeding and temperature-regulating chicken coop. The barn creeps along over its assigned pasture at a rate programmed based on stocking rate and grass conditions — this allows chickens fresh grass and bugs regularly and prevents overgrazing.
When the barn reaches the end of the pasture, it moves itself over and tracks in the opposite direction.
Badiou and Jean-Laflamme know they work 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’m a strong believer that if it’s going to be built by someone, you have to test it so you really know what’s all in it,” Badiou said.
Pastured poultry and pork remain a niche industry in Manitoba where chicken is supply managed, and non-quota farmers are limited to fewer than 1,000 birds.
However, interest in raising poultry and pork on grass is rising along with interest in regenerative agriculture, Badiou said.
Some regenerative vegetable farms, for instance, like to integrate animals into their farms. A vegetable farm may run the Rova Barn and chickens on a piece of their land one year, and then plant that area with vegetables the next, Badiou said.
The fertilizer the chickens add is pretty evident. Badiou’s mom kicked a prototype Rova Barn off her lawn after it left lush-green rectangles everywhere.
Interest in pastured poultry is higher in Ontario, which has an established ‘artisan’ poultry framework, and the U.S. where many states can farm 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) tougher than you think, especially in Manitoba,” said Badiou.
People often don’t understand what they’re trying to do.
“It’s tough, and it’s even tougher to get investment because of that,” he said.
However, happy customers make it worthwhile. So does seeing the pigs and chickens excited for fresh grass and bugs.
“Just how happy they were. It kind of reinforced what we were doing,” Badiou said.
This August, Ukko Robotics branched out to add “smart locker” Vendii to its product line. Vendii was designed as a solution for direct-selling farmers to facilitate and automate customer pickups.
In a news release, Ukko Robotics explained the lockers have multiple locked compartments which can be opened with a code sent to the buyer. The lockers come temperature controlled or non-controlled.
Ukko is currently beta testing Vendii ahead of commercial release.