What’s on the tech­nol­ogy hori­zon for Ir­ish farm­ers?

Irish Examiner - Farming - - TECHNOLOGY FOCUS - Ross MacMathúna, Food and Agri Prac­tice Lead at Ac­cen­ture

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.

Pic­ture: Shane O’Neill

Ross MacMathuna, Ac­cen­ture.

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