The Irish dairy herd produces approximately 5,400 million litres of milk annually from just over a million cows spread over 16,000 dairy farms. The industry contributes approximately €3bn to the economy, making Ireland the 10th largest dairy export nation in the world.
Globally there are increasing demands for milk products and the Irish industry, along with the EU commission, is seizing this opportunity by removing the restrictive quota system and setting aggressive expansion targets of a 50pc increase in milk output by 2020. Technology will pay a key role in achieving these targets and will strive to produce systems that will enable dairy farming to efficiently increase production while maintaining a safe working environment.
The Telecommunication Software and Systems Group (www.tssg.org) in Waterford Institute of Technology, along with its research partners in Teagasc and Cork Institute of Technology, believe that merging the ICT industry with the traditional agriculture industry to develop a 'Smart-Agri' capability will not only enable Ireland to reach the 2020 targets, but also to become world leaders in agriculture technology.
The life-blood of the Smart-Agri sector is data - how can we capture, analyse and understand what the data is telling us about the status of the fields, milking parlours and processing factories across Ireland and use this intelligence to drive decision-support systems.
This technology will have an effect across the supply chain: for farmers, who make decisions that affect their outputs in the short, medium and long-term. For example calculating the dry-matter (for instance, the amount of energy in the grass content of a pasture); calculating the best times to sow seed; when to apply fertiliser; identifying what bull would result in the best progeny for their herd; predicting what will be the output of the farm in two to three years' time? Similarly for the processors, having an ability to forecast their supply of perishable products in the short, medium and long term is critical to planning for expansion opportunities. Currently these questions are being answered predominantly by farmers' experience and intuition.
The dairy sector is a prime example of how survival and growth is dependent on external factors, such as fluctuations in the price of fertiliser, grain, fodder and fuel along with the ever-changeable Irish weather. It makes medium to long-term predictions very difficult and throughout the year there are fluctuations in the supply that lead to peaks and troughs in processing.
Our research involves building the 'Smart Appi' software platform to provide processors with a way to forecast variations in milk supply over the production season. By taking data from a range of external sources and modelling it, processors will be able to identify emerging trends and get a more accurate prediction of short-term and longer-term milk production and quality levels.
* Eric Robson is a research manager in the areas of data mining and social computing for the TSSG in Waterford Institute of Technology.