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Monday 19 November 2018

Grazing a trail that could take the hard work out of fencing

Pictured on the Fresh Graze stand at last month's National Ploughing Championships were (l-r) Damien Dempsey, UCD Ag Science and Food Dept; Maura Canning, Galway IFA; and Charlie and James Drumm, who won an award for best agri start-up innovation
Pictured on the Fresh Graze stand at last month's National Ploughing Championships were (l-r) Damien Dempsey, UCD Ag Science and Food Dept; Maura Canning, Galway IFA; and Charlie and James Drumm, who won an award for best agri start-up innovation
Two robots attached to the Fresh Graze fence help move it when commanded to do so, for example from a mobile phone, as shown here by Charlie Drumm
Derek Casey

Derek Casey

Picture the scene: the two Drumm brothers, James (18) and Charlie (17), are out in the rain putting up an electric fence for strip grazing their cattle on the family farm near Mullingar.

They come in an hour later, soaked and late for football training. Wet and exasperated, they ask their parents would it not be possible in this day and age to have a fence capable of moving itself?

Both are very IT literate and reckoned there could be a cyber-way of making the essential but tedious job of moving a fence easier for busy and hard-working farmers.

The problem has become more pronounced during the post-quota expansion of the dairy sector. Despite the rapid increase in cow numbers, most farms are short of labour, so time management has become critical.

Pictured on the Fresh Graze stand at last month's National Ploughing Championships were (l-r) Damien Dempsey, UCD Ag Science and Food Dept; Maura Canning, Galway IFA; and Charlie and James Drumm, who won an award for best agri start-up innovation
Pictured on the Fresh Graze stand at last month's National Ploughing Championships were (l-r) Damien Dempsey, UCD Ag Science and Food Dept; Maura Canning, Galway IFA; and Charlie and James Drumm, who won an award for best agri start-up innovation

A gap in the market exists for anything that can take some of the hard work out of fencing and the Drumm brothers' 'Fresh Graze' is an innovation that could fit the bill.

They have developed the product with support from their father Thomas and their mother Laura, a vet.

Thomas and Laura encouraged both the lads to check out the IT possibilities for making a common farming task easier.

The result is that the family has now patented Fresh Grazing, a cyber-physical device which they hope will revolutionise grassland production, milk yields and live-weight gain.

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Their prototype design was showcased at last month's National Ploughing Championships on the Innovation Arena stand. The design impressed judges and punters alike, and Fresh Graze won the Ag-tech start-up Alfie Cox Perpetual Cup for best start-up innovation (worth €15,000).

How it works

Fresh Graze is an automated moving fence system - the fencing is moved using two robots to allocate fresh grass to livestock on a continual basis at a rate that ensures the entire sward is consumed before the fence moves on again.

Based on a feeding plan, the size of the paddock and a feeding rate, a cloud-based system is used to output when and how much the fence should move.

The benefits of the system include:

  • Saving busy dairy farmers a lot of time moving fences and ensuring that it is done at the right time, as the software knows the stocking rate and grass availability.
  • It prevents selective grazing and allows for more research into mixed species swards.
  • The cows don't walk on or contaminate the grass they are about to move into, so pasture utilisation is much better.
  • Fresh Grazing provides flexibility and eases grassland management decisions, making them easy to implement and improving grass production and utilisation.
  • It leaves a digital footprint for farm-to-fork traceability.

Data from the milking parlour and grass measuring devices can be integrated with the Fresh Graze software to optimise milk production and live-weight gain.

Thomas Drumm says the system is not quite ready for market yet, but after a suitable trial period and feedback from early customers, a prototype should be ready for full launch within two years.

The family's ambitious plan is to make Fresh Graze available to customers in Ireland, the EU and worldwide.

With this idea the Drumms say they have created a simple, reliable and robust system for managing grassland.

Thomas says the payback for a dairy farmer could be within 18 months or two years of purchase, but he is not yet ready to talk about retail prices as there is "much work still to be done".

He is hopeful of securing grant aid status for the device going forward in order to make it affordable to all farmers.

The family has outsourced work to people when needed. They are open to IT solutions and put project problems out on the internet to allow people to solve them or come forward with suggestions for improvement.

"I think we are part of the fourth industrial revolution now that can use digital, internet and mechatronics to have an impact on soil, plant, animal, farmer, processor and consumer for the good of society," says Thomas.

The Drumms have been working on the project for over three years - Thomas effectively retired from dairy farming to focus on it.

They are keen to acknowledge the assistance and encouragement they have received from Enterprise Ireland, Tralee Institute of Technology and Teagasc.

The TEG group in Mullingar (a specialist engineering services company) were also a very big help.

Thomas was a dairy farmer for over 30 years, supplying Lakeland Dairies with both winter and spring milk. In the past, he won scholarships and through these got the opportunity to study farming in Holland and New Zealand.

He retired from dairy farming in 2014, when he was milking 80 cows.

He has been a part-time suckler farmer and working full-time on the Fresh Graze project since then. He tends to look after agricultural aspects of the system, while his two sons are the IT whizzkids.

James is a first-year engineering student at UCD. He is the 2017 Irish national tetrathlon U-21 champion (running, swimming, riding and target shooting).

In his downtime he gives horse-riding lessons to special needs children and works with his little sister Anna (12) who has Down Syndrome.

Younger brother Charlie is a fifth-year student in Coláiste Mhuire, Mullingar. During transition year he had the chance to gain valuable hands-on engineering and software experience with local companies.

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