Monday 24 November 2014

Scan man Dr Dan helps see into future

Agri-business

Published 20/02/2014 | 02:30

Dan Ryan says his systems are relevant to producers at all levels in the food chain
Dan Ryan says his systems are relevant to producers at all levels in the food chain

Dan Ryan has spent the best part of his last 25 years with his hand deep inside a cow. Over 2.5m cows believe it or not.

This may not seem like much to boast about, but Mr Ryan, or Dr Dan as he's known in the farming community, has put all those hours standing in dirty cattle crushes to good use.

Dr Dan makes a living out of scanning cows, helping farmers get their herds back in calf quicker to keep the calves coming and the milk flowing.

While Bill Gates chalked up 10,000 hours fluting around with amateur computer programming before he'd amassed enough expertise to take on the cyber world, Dr Dan has spent at least the same amount of time peering into dung flecked screens to decipher the meaning of the hazy luminous grey images from his scanning equipment.

He's got it down to such a fine art that he can tell if a cow is pregnant long before a foetus is even visible on the screen.

However, like the rest of us, Dr Dan isn't getting any younger. He's not going to be able to keep up the hard graft of climbing in and out of wet cattle handling facilities from six in the morning to 10 at night for too many years more.

The problem with this is that, for many farmers, if it's not Dr Dan who's doing the scanning, then it's not being done at all.

But Dr Dan has been preparing for the day that he has to hang up his scanning equipment for some time. Almost five years ago, he started exploring the possibility of getting the analysis of the scans done remotely, at his base in Fermoy, while leaving somebody else to get their hands in the, er, relevant location.

A lot of experimental cul de sacs followed.

"I eventually realised that it was no good trying to beam thousands of scans back to Fermoy, running the risk of getting them mixed up or lost in the process, when the farmer really needed real-time information on what was going on inside his cow as she was being scanned," says Dr Dan.

"Then I spent years trying to perfect voice recognition systems where the scanner would say what he was seeing into a computer that would then automatically interpret that data into a useable form for the farmer."

But the Meath native persisted, and with the help of DCU algorithm and computer hardware developers, Dr Dan now has a system that can automatically recognise pregnancies, determine their age to within plus or minus two days and become a valuable tool in helping farmers to manage their herds better. ScanMan has burned through €2.5m during its development but the directors of the fledgling company behind it, CowsDNA, believe that a global market beckons.

"We have already licensed the product to a large dairy company in Belarus, who in turn are using it in over 300 dairy farms throughout Kazakhstan, the Ukraine and Belarus. Basically, we train the local vets to use the equipment, and give them an annual license to use the equipment for about €2,000 a year. On top of this, we get 20 cent for every scan taken," explains Dr Dan.

He believes the real value of the technology will become more apparent in the coming years, as food companies place more demands on farmers to prove that their animals are healthy.

"We can use the womb as a biomarker of both how healthy the cow has been for the last 12 months, and how healthy that she is likely to be over the next 12. The scanning information can be attached to an electronic passport so that anybody can see at a glance the history of the animal. It removes a huge amount of human error that typically occurs in farm record keeping, and leaves an incontrovertible digital paper-trail of an animal's healthiness," he claims.

Dr Dan is still scanning cows, but he hopes that his real legacy will be to turn Ireland into a global leader in this field of epigenetics.

"We're just starting to roll out the technology with local vets, but if we can keep the ball rolling here, the sky's the limit. The drive to the bottom in food production is not right and the stresses that this places on both people and animals needs to be recognised. This is something that every level of the food chain should be taking an interest in."

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