What’s on the technology horizon for Irish farmers?
While technology is rapidly transforming the farming industry, it has yet to fully deliver for Irish farmers. Picture the scene: A farmer who had been losing sleep over livestock health is now confident that “smart devices” worn by the herd, and sensors in the shed, will send a notification by text of any changes that are a cause for concern. Meanwhile, extreme weather had been hindering access to the farm, but a drone can now fly on a predefined route around the land to monitor livestock or even the growth of crops, all the while gathering valuable data that feeds back automatically to the farmer’s mobile phone. Technology is rapidly transforming the farming industry in Ireland. It’s clear that there is an abundance of tools already available, and many more still in development stage with great potential. There is no doubt that some Irish farmers are already embracing the technology that’s out there. Robotic milking machines on farms are now more commonplace (1,500 units were sold by one manufacturer in the UK and Ireland in 2016), and a whole variety of plate meters to measure grass are available for Irish farmers to purchase. Contrary to popular belief, farmers are open to adopting new technology. Teagasc research from 2016 tells us that new entrants to dairying in particular have a high propensity to adopt new technologies, especially around grazing, artificial intelligence (AI), and financial management. However, while smart agricultural technology has promised a lot, it has yet to fully deliver for farmers, particularly in Ireland. Farms and farmers have access to a lot of data and new technologies, and often use bits and pieces of that data to solve one particular problem. But data input can be time consuming, and some applications can be difficult to use. I recently saw a farmer wrestling with a system that was performing an automatic update, while squinting at a screen in the sunlight, all the while trying to select the correct option from a drop-down menu containing dozens of choices.
That’s just bad design. We also see various systems, recording similar things, that don’t communicate or share data — a big bone of contention for farmers, and a missed opportunity to make life easier and work more efficient, particularly important in light of the shortage of farm labour. Ultimately, there is no single unifying farm application platform that could take disparate data sources (such as feed, veterinary medicines, chemicals, milk data), store and record them, analyse them for insight and deliver a result in a usable format to the farmer. Wouldn’t it be much easier, if you could fulfil your compliance requirements at the push of a button?
Or have a decision support tool that could advise you on what the correct decision with regard to grazing, feeding or breeding is?
Having said that, it is encouraging that farmers are now more aware of the data that they have, and are better able to access it.
A farmer can have full control over all of the data sources that they have chosen to employ from anywhere on the farm — whether in the house, the milking parlour or one of their fields — straight to and from their smartphone. The information farmers receive from various sensors and systems around their properties can now be accompanied by insights and recommendations.
For example, many farmers and contractors are using precision fertiliser application, ensuring the right type and amount of fertiliser is applied in the right place, which is good agricultural practice from a financial and environmental perspective. Beyond showcasing exciting innovation for the sake of it, technology providers need to guarantee that the systems on offer are needed, are practical and are adding value to the farmer.
The effort is only worthwhile, after all, if the user can get something back out of it, and this is largely where advances in the current systems will lie.
We need to move from systems where farmers are providing data, to systems that analyse that data and provide timely feedback to the farmer. Ireland has a unique grassbased production system, and is home to a hotbed of innovative technology start-ups. Meanwhile, internet and mobile phone technology has moved towards common platforms.
Now we need to ensure technology and applications on farms start to work together, to ensure farmers can reap the benefit of one of their most valuable crops — data.
Smart agricultural technology has promised a lot, but has yet to fully deliver for farmers, particularly in Ireland. Various systems, recording similar things, that don’t communicate or share data, are a big bone of contention for farmers.
Ross MacMathuna, Accenture.