Business Farming

Sunday 25 September 2016

With its FitBits for cows, Dairymaster aims to stay ahead of the industry herd

Amid the looming risk of a Brexit, there is great temptation to delay investment, especially in the UK, but Dairymaster is to push ahead there, writes Michael Cogley

Published 07/04/2016 | 02:30

Dr Edmond Harty, Chief executive of Dairymaster
Dr Edmond Harty, Chief executive of Dairymaster
Dr Harty recognises that milk prices are a big issue

Things were different back in 1968 when Dairymaster began selling and installing basic milking equipment. The rural landscape has changed utterly and today the business has developed hardware than can track the activity of a cow much in the same way that a FitBit monitors humans' exercise and sleeping patterns.

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The aptly named 'MooMonitor' tracks each cow's resting, ruminating and feeding patterns and has helped push Dairymaster towards expansion at a time when dairy prices are on the floor.

While the firm counts the UK among its biggest trade partners, chief executive Dr Edmond Harty said a British exit from the European Union is not something that currently worries him.

"Fundamentally there are still farmers in the UK, there's still a need for local milk supply and I don't see that changing any time soon," Dr Harty told the Irish Independent.

"If it does go through (a Brexit), as an individual company there's very little we can do to sway that one way or the other so we just have to deal with the consequences of it, whatever they are," he argued.

Kerry-based Dairymaster, which already exports to 40 countries, is looking to expand in the US and the UK.

As part of the expansion the company is adding to its existing 360 employees by hiring an extra 65 staff, 20 of whom will be based overseas.

In the US Dairymaster is targeting mid-western states like Wisconsin and Ohio, as well as the east coast state of Pennsylvania.

While the firm has bases in the UK and the US it uses local dealer networks across 38 other countries to sell its products.

Dr Harty said the firm can do more in the UK in spite of "extremely challenging" milk prices.

"Milk prices have an effect, they always has an effect. If you look at other markets like central Europe and places like that there's not as much activity going on, purely because the available cash flow that farmers have is less.

"However, over the last year we're continuing to grow even though they are the market conditions. It goes back to innovation. You have to innovate, you have to create products to differentiate yourself."

The MooMonitor is part of a range of connected devices that are gradually spreading across Ireland.

Of Ireland's 18,000 dairy farms Dr Harty reckons 600 of them are connected using Dairymaster technology.

The monitor, which takes around three million readings a day, works by placing a necklace around the cow's neck. It sends signals back to a central hub at the farm.

All of the data collected by the monitor is sent to the cloud where it is analysed for abnormalities. If any crop up the farmer is then notified via a push notification on their smartphone.

While the general premise of the monitor is similar to the FitBit, it's definitely a much beefier device.

"With a FitBit the battery lasts from weeks to months. If you look at most of the wearables for humans the wireless range is via Bluetooth so typically about 10 metres away from your phone.

"If you take MooMonitor it has a battery life of up to 10 years, and the largest range is about 5km," Dr Harty said.

The reason for the creation of the monitor lies around value and getting the most out of a herd.

"In a typical 80-cow herd, by optimising its fertility, there is a gain of about €22,000 to be made per annum. If you look at that relative to average farm income it's a big chunk."

Outside of the monitor Dairymaster has been praised for its milking parlour technology called the Swiftflo Commander.

The Commander allows cows to be milked faster and better by controlling all the milking technology on the farm from one device.

Dairymaster has also invested in milk cooling technology.

In the early noughties the company identified an opportunity to make cooling milk more efficient.

"From an energy point of view about 40pc of farmers' energy bills comes from cooling milk. So the question is can you reduce it and the answer is you can.

"We wanted to design something that was really, really thermally efficient," Dr Harty said.

The company achieved this developing a milk cooler that was so efficient that if it were turned off on a hot day the temperature of the milk would rise by just 0.1 degrees Celsius.

Among its other products is the goat milking rotary, which has bizarrely been advertised on a billboard in Times Square in New York.

Innovation has been a key element of Dairymaster's development since it was established by Dr Harty's father Ned in the 1960s. Dr Harty likens innovation to cake, saying that businesses are constantly looking for new ingredients to stand out.

In 1993 Dairymaster became the first firm in the world to use electronic tags on dairy cow's ears to identify them.

Dairymaster's largest installation is in the US on a farm that can feed half a million people a day.

With milk prices currently languishing at around 26c per litre, Dr Harty said that Ireland is fairing better than most other European markets. "Milk prices are probably affecting the Irish market less at the moment mainly because the cost of production here is lower. I think Ireland is making use of the fact that milk quotas have been abolished," Dr Harty said.

The company stands over its reputation for building quality products. The philosophy at the heart of the firm is to always try and make things better.

Part of that is a result of its its in-house manufacturing. Dairymaster produces 95pc of all its products in-house and currently has 45 technology patents on file.

Dairymaster has ambitious plans for this year. The company has developed a strong presence as a connected farm leader earning plenty of plaudits along the way.

Agribusiness is shifting more and more towards connected farms with data now providing an extremely accurate picture of livestock health.

The uptake of the internet of things in agriculture hasn't been limited to the age of a farmer or the size of their farm either.

Exterior threats like milk prices and Brexit remain but Dairymaster is betting that it'll be shielded by the fact that its business centres on making all farms more efficient.

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