Monday 16 October 2017

Nose-to-tail system brings farmers back to the land

Entrepreneur of the Year Edmond Harty of Dairymaster suggests how the economy can be booted into shape

Dr Edmond Harty

MENTION the information economy and everybody nods wisely: yes, that's the way to get out of recession and create jobs. Mention farming and everybody looks puzzled.

Familiarity has bred contempt. Ireland has been involved in agriculture for so long, we've developed a kind of "familiarity blindness" about it. Farming is farming, and some people think the highest level of technology involved is a tractor. That couldn't be less true.

The fact is that the information economy and farming are one and the same. The most exciting innovations, right now, are being applied in farming.

A few years ago, for example, I was on a plane, headed for Canada, idly reading a magazine feature about nano-technology and torpedoes. I showed it to my colleague in the seat next to me.

"This is where we need to be," I said. "This technology detects movement. We know that cows move differently when they come into heat. If we could adapt this technology so it captured that movement, it could revolutionise the whole fertility process."

We went to work. We adapted the technology into something we called the MooMonitor; a device that fits around a cow's neck, monitors her movements, and telephones the farmer when she's ready for action. Technology performing a task that can save a farmer €250 per cow.

That matters to the Irish farmer. And it matters to farmers in other countries just as much, which is why we now export the MooMonitor to the US, France, Germany, Holland, Australia and New Zealand. In increasing numbers. That's good for the economy and for job creation within Ireland.

And it's all built on what we've always been good at in this country: food production.

In Dairymaster, we talk about making farming more profitable, enjoyable and sustainable. That wouldn't be a bad objective to have, as a nation. It's long overdue that we put our focus put back on food production and agriculture, because this is something that we are good at.

The sector is important in every part of Ireland, and

'Globally, massive changes are happening in the expectations of farmers and the needs of consumers'

when the sector is doing well it has a very positive impact on the local economy.

As a food exporter, we're well placed, with international consumers seeing Ireland as a green, natural producer. Irish businesses which are exporting agriculture-derived products are doing very well. The value of exports of Irish food and drink was almost €9bn in 2011, and agri-food exports account for over 25 per cent of total foreign earnings.

That has happened because of informed opportunism, because of scientific innovation and because we're seen as having high standards as well as hard work.

One of the most sensitive markets for food products is the baby food market. Other countries have had major scandals in this area, and the immediate reaction of parents has been to reject product from that country of origin – even if it's their own – and look for a trustworthy source. Top of the list of trustworthy sources comes Ireland. We provide 16 per cent of the world's baby food

We're trustworthy, when it comes to that rightly sensitive market, because we have rigorous standards at every point in the production process. And because we're constantly innovating.

When it comes to food production, "good enough" won't cut it. If it was good enough last year, we should always be asking if it's good enough this year and if it will be good enough next year.

Those are precisely the questions we are asking – and answering. Answering in a way that challenges how an industry thinks. Farming, for example, has traditionally thought in terms of The Herd. It could be a small herd or a vast herd, but it was a herd: a collective of cows to be managed almost as a mass. In Dairymaster, a few years ago, we began to look at that again, and to wonder aloud if we could develop technology that would allow each animal to be managed individually, so that if one cow needed a different kind of nutrition, or early intervention for an emerging condition, it would be possible to capture that information in some way.

We wanted to create a full "nose to tail" solution, whereby our technology would manage each animal as an individual, rather than managing the entire herd.

How we went about it was to apply "what if" thinking on the part of our scientists in Causeway in Kerry. What if we looked again at the machines everybody takes for granted – the milking parlour technology – and developed it so that it could identify each cow, feed it individually (better milk yields from less or better targeted nutrition), check its health, milk it more completely than other milking machines available?

The end result is that we turned the milking parlour into a diagnostic system. The parlours we now export to 40 countries worldwide can milk as many as 100 cows in just 10 minutes, delivering not just milk, but a rake of data to the farmer, which in turn makes a herd into manageable individual animals.

High science applied to the familiar can revolutionise a business.

People, worldwide, have been fleeing the farm because it was an onerous and in many cases a joyless career. It may seem a big claim to make, but the fact is that the high tech innovation we've done in Kerry is helping reverse that trend. Our technology means fewer late nights and early mornings, more automation, better individual treatment of each cow, improved nutrition, higher yields and healthier herds.

It's also making dairy farming more profitable. The abolition of EU quotas in 2015 has already been identified by Dairymaster as creating many opportunities but also many challenges for dairy farmers. One of the most significant challenges will be dealing with the weather, which can result in poor grass growth and shortage of fodder. This has been a huge challenge this year and it could happen again. In order to combat this risk it will mean being more strategic with feeding on an individual cow level as well as increasing efficiency further.

Globally, massive changes are happening in the expectations of farmers, the needs of consumers and the pressure on stocks of farmable land.

The projected increase in world population to 9 billion in 2050 and the growing demand for food and food security worldwide means that Ireland, which produces 10 times what it requires, is strategically placed to benefit from this growing demand for high-quality foods.

We need to realise that farming is a key part of our future. We need to think about where we want to go and what we want to be known for on a global stage. Now we need everyone to think how we can make that happen.

Irish Independent

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