Monday 27 February 2017

Irish inventors driving the high-tech farm of the future

The next technology revolution may transform agriculture and farming. Irish companies are at the forefront of developing new ways to make the sector more efficient

Cows wearing digital collars are milked at a dairy farm (REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Cows wearing digital collars are milked at a dairy farm (REUTERS/Amir Cohen)

Irish farming is in the middle of a technological revolution. Hi-tech farmers are hungry for new technology, whether it's self-driving tractors, self-milking cows, aerial drones to herd sheep, mobile phone apps to alert owners when cows are calving, or software that measures how fast grass is growing,

With a vast array of gadgets already at their fingertips, Irish farmers are proving to be just as canny as their hi-tech hipster cousins in Dublin's Silicon Dock when it comes to being early-adopters of technology - and they are reaping the benefits in terms of time-savings, cost-savings and reduced environmental impact.

The booming activity in the agtech sector has led experts to predict that its growth will outpace today's hottest technologies within a decade.

Insiders suggest the global agtech industry may be about to enjoy the agrarian equivalent of a dot.com boom - with Ireland located at the epicentre of it.

Venture capitalists are pouring money into agtech companies focused on everything from big data to drone technology and 'virtual fences' using GPS technology and animal sensors.

Meanwhile, dozens of Irish companies are spending millions of euro to create the hardware or software to make farmland more productive and farming more efficient.

The massive growth of agtech has turned heads in Silicon Valley too and a number of key figures are jetting into Dublin this week to hear how Irish firms are leading the way in this global sector. A two-day Silicon Valley Global Tech Summit organised by the Irish Technology and Leadership Group kicks off on Tuesday in Dublin. It will feature the likes of former Intel chief executive Craig Barrett, Amazon Ireland manager Jeff Caselden and Dragons' Den investor Sean O'Sullivan. The tech summit will devote a morning session to the topic of 'The Agtech Revolution: Reinventing the Farm'.

Experts believe Ireland is perfectly poised to capitalise on the agtech boom given our hi-tech talent pool and our 'low-tech' farming expertise.

Combining the forces of our agriculture and technology industries could pave the way for formidable innovation and may offer a blueprint for the 'farm of the future', say industry insiders.

Agriculture is Ireland's biggest indigenous sector, contributing €24bn to the Irish economy annually, representing almost 10pc all exports and nearly 8pc of all employment.

The technology sector is responsible for €72bn of Ireland's exports - 40pc of the national total - and four of the top five exporters in Ireland are technology companies.

If the skills and economic might of both these sectors can be harnessed to develop our agtech industry, Ireland Inc will have hit pay dirt.

Teagasc - the agriculture and food development agency - has just launched a new initiative to focus on identifying the key technologies that have the potential over the next 20 years to drive the Irish agtech sector.

This crystal ball gazing is forcing Teagasc to look beyond the standard three-to-five-year timeframe and to think about what is possible in the long term and to develop strategies, policies and roadmaps for its research and innovation programmes.

One product that is likely to be a popular fixture of the 'farm of the future' is a grass measuring device being championed by one Irish agtech entrepreneur. Watching grass grow might not sound like much of a job but Steve Lock is hoping to become a millionaire from it. He is one of the brains behind GrassOmeter, a new device that measures grass growth and which has received €1.4m in R&D funding from the likes of Enterprise Ireland and food giant Glanbia.

The GrassOmeter, which is about to be launched on the market, is a mobile unit that is operated via an app on the farmer's mobile phone. The phone's GPS system tracks the farmer's movement as the farm is measured and the results are uploaded to the cloud. Measurements are also instantly linked to weather and other data.

In a further sign of Silicon Valley's embrace of agtech, the GrassOmeter device is designed by legendary Apple designer Jerry Manock - the man who helped design the first Mac and is named on the Apple patent.

Manock, a Silicon Valley icon, got on board the project after Lock emailed him asking him for assistance. The GrassOmeter device is owned by Mayo-based Monford AG systems and is manufactured in Ashbourne, Co Meath. It can measure grass and silage quality, plant health and soil condition, moisture and compaction.

Grass growth is vitally important to dairy and beef farmers who are striving to boost productivity and profits margins against a backdrop of ever-tightening margins.

"Grass is the cheapest and most efficient source of feedstuff for cattle. If you can grow more grass you can feed your cows better quality grass more of the time and you can have more of them," explains Steve Lock of GrassOmeter.

"One of the reasons why farmers haven't been measuring their grass so much to date is because of the milk quotas which ended in April. They have not needed to have more grass because there was no upside to them having more cattle as they were already at the limit of the quota. That's all changed. Now if you grow more grass, you can have more cattle and you sell more milk. There's a much bigger driver for it now."

But Lock is not letting the grass grow under his feet. He says big data is now as important to farming as big harvests - and his device will feed that demand too. Fertiliser companies and seed firms can see the immense value in the data being accumulated by this technology, he says.

"Once you are gathering data, that data has got value for fertiliser companies and seed firms so there is a bigger interest there than just the individual farmer," said Lock. "Data is the new soil: it's as important for the farm of the future as the tractor is today. As technology progresses, you are able to measure things and manage things in ways that you couldn't do before. Increasingly that data is going to be as important as the crops that are harvested. Farms are becoming more specialised. The equipment they are using is becoming more expensive so the effects of a wrong decision become much greater."

Gerard Keenan, executive chairman of agricultural specialist Keenan Systems, says agtech is the future. Keenan's is an agricultural feed technology firm that has annual turnover of €42m and exports to 50 countries.

"There is an emerging revolution going on in Ireland right now," he said. "There is a lot of technology being developed, so right now, you are getting the early adopters. But you are soon going to see a bigger relevance to much more farmers. That is just about to happen."

Keenan says cloud technology was the tipping point that transformed the global potential of agtech - and transformed his business.

"We had a smart box on our feeding machines originally and this involved somebody transferring that information by memory stick. But when cloud computing came along around 2013 that transformed our potential. Even that simple thing of eliminating any handling or manual necessity to transfer the data was huge. It means our customers don't have to do anything and we can know what's going on without ever having to ask them, and then we're able to help them."

Carlow-headquartered Keenan Systems has developed a standalone data management site in Kilkenny employing expert animal nutritionists to utilise the information gathered by its machines on a daily basis around the globe. "It's really only when we developed a place to utilise the data, the information coming from the technology, that we began to provide really valuable guidance to our customers," said Keenan.

Referring to the firm's iTouch data centre, Keenan says: "We can see that piece emerging as a big piece of our business."

Keenan's precision feeding technology is used by many of Ireland's top milk processors to help their farmer suppliers improve milk composition through nutrition guided technology.

Tech-savvy farmers know that software and sensors that enable them to better collect and interpret farm data will be key to managing their operations more efficiently and maximising profit.

And when the global agtech boom takes off, Irish entrepreneurs will be poised to reap the rewards.

Sunday Indo Business

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