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Maeve Cowley, Vice President, IDA Ireland
A dairy cow lumbering through a field seems to be the antithesis of high technology but sensors, AI, analytics, connectivity and the other elements of the Internet of Things are beginning to have a significant impact on milk production, which is none too soon. With a world population that will reach 9.7 billion by 2050 -- that's more than two billion additional humans than exist today -- global food production system will be increasingly under siege from forces like urbanization, climate change, less arable land and the ongoing difficulty of finding workers in the United States in this low-paying field.
Critically, milk consumption per capita is predicted to grow significantly by 2067 according to recent research published in the Journal of Dairy Science, further stressing the world's dairy herds, which will need to produce 600 billion kilograms more milk. Milk production has been going up for the last quarter century but without the intervention of technology, it's impossible to meet future needs, experts say.
Milk is a fragile substance, thus preserving its quality from the moment it comes out of the cow until it is processed has always been a challenge and a permanent concern. As noted by Aidan Connolly, chief innovation officer at Kentucky-based Alltech, a world leader in animal health and nutrition, "More than any other technological advancement, sensors can fill in the data gap in dairy farming, particularly when animals are outside in a field."
Prior to using technology, monitoring a cow's health was costly, time intensive and often difficult, he reports, but there have been profound changes of late. "The use of sensors and wearable technologies allows farmers to monitor individual cows. No longer do producers have to work from herd averages but are able to determine illness or lameness more effectively and react accordingly, quite possibly before milk production or the herd is affected," he says.
Wearables are placed on a cow's ear, neck, legs or tail and sensors can also be implanted, sending out data and helping farmers get a real-time, accurate view on an individual cow's movement, consumption, health, milk production levels and other factors. There are now sensors that can detect endemic problems like mastitis -- inflammation of cow udders -- enabling quick individual treatment rather than treating the whole herd.
Connolly’s team from Alltech, went to Ireland to search for innovative ways that technology could work side-by-side with their existing nutritional solution. Working with Dogpatch Labs, in Dublin they were introduce to a number of ingenious technologies. A good example of the precision agriculture possible through technology that they began to work with was developed by Irish company Moocall, whose smart sensors attach to a cow's tail. The sensors measure temperature, which communicate when a cow is in heat, when it will give birth and other important factors. Meanwhile, the sensors in use by Austrian company, Smartbow, a company acquired by huge animal health firm Zoetis, report a cow's location, its eating patterns, temperature and other data. Farmers receive alerts on their PC, smartphone or tablet.
Alltech also worked with Irish company Maggrow , a company with a technology that magnetizes pesticide so that it sticks to plants more easily. This saves farmers money because they use less spray and it’s also better for the plant and the environment. And then there’s Cainthus who offer a revolutionary facial recognition system for cows allowing security cameras to monitor cows and replace the need for sensors. Technology is just at the tipping point for agtech.
Locating herd members is a critical aspect to farming and San Diego-based startup Vence helps farmers maximize the yield of their land by utilizing sensors, AI and the latest animal behavior research to control the movement and grazing of animals through virtual fencing. Intelligent ear tags that can emit sounds, mild shocks or warning stimuli keep cows where farmers want them while also sending realtime data on a cow's health. Given the expense of land and, particularly, fencing, this IoT vendor is now on the radar of investors and major agribusiness companies.
In today's IT-driven dairy farming, the monitoring and treatment of each animal has been greatly improved from the old days. According to Mark Keane, principal investigator at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics in Ireland, "If you treat an entire herd, then all those animals develop a resistance to antibiotics," he explains, “but by using data and information from individual cows, we can identify the cow in question and treat them individually.
"Using a precision-farming approach, we do analysis at each stage of the process," he says. This starts with what the cows eat so that the food, whether grass in the field or something else, can properly increase growth and yield. This analysis continues with monitoring all aspects of the animal, then continues into the production factory.
For example, companies now offer milk monitoring systems via sensors that measure the physical and chemical properties of milk, from protein to lactose levels to butterfat content, using optical, conductive, flow, and thermal sensors that are in-situ with the milking machine.
However, some dairymen are going even further in their application of technology, starting with the basic genomic code of a cow. According to Keane, the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) has compiled one of the world's most advanced databases and it's used to breed better cows that increase milk yield.
"A coordinated approach to a national herd is the best way to go," insists Keane. "In America, they breed for size but bigger is not better because there can be health issues with this type of breeding." For example, cows bred for milk production might have more fertility problems. “Improving several traits at the same time produces better results,” Keane says.
Illumina, a San Diego company making genetic-research tools, began teaming with ICBF in 2015 and will continue these efforts through 2020 to encourage cattle genotyping as a routine practice for farmers in America and across the globe. With technology on their side, dairy farmers have a major leg up in increasing production and the health of their animals while lessening the environmental impact.
“The opportunities for using technology in agriculture are so much bigger than in any other industry,” concluded Connolly. “Because we’ve traditionally been managing animals with so few data points, there’s a huge opportunity for phenomenal growth with IoT technologies.”
About the author: Maeve Cowley is Vice President of New Forms of Investment at IDA. She is based in California. Contact Maeve at email@example.com.
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