The new Teagasc centre where the cows milk themselves

Some 200 staff are working in the €4.5m Paddy O’Keeffe Innovation Centre

EU Commissioner Carlos Moedas speaking at the official opening of the Paddy O’Keeffe innovation centre at Teagasc Moorepark in Fermoy: the centre is now home to some 200 people who are working in animal and grassland research

EU Commissioner Carlos Moedas speaking at the official opening of the Paddy O’Keeffe innovation centre at Teagasc Moorepark in Fermoy: the centre is now home to some 200 people who are working in animal and grassland research

 

Even after his death, Paddy O’Keeffe was promoting research. The former Farmers Journal editor, who was passionate about learning, donated his body to science when he died in his 90th year in 2013.

Finding ways to make two blades of grass grow where only one grew was his mission, so it came as no surprise when Teagasc opened a new innovation centre in his name last month. The Paddy O’Keeffe Innovation Centre at Moorepark in Fermoy is now home to some 200 people who are working in animal and grassland research. Fifty years ago, farmers would have laughed if you told them about some of the projects going on at the centre today. Take the Autograssmilk project, which also involves partners in France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium.

Dr Bernadette O’Brien is working on the project which involves robotic milking machines. With the exception of Ireland, she says almost half of the new milking parlours installed in the partner countries are automatic systems. One in five cows in the EU will be milked by a robot by 2020.

The cows queue up to be milked, the gates open automatically to let them in and the milking clusters are put on without a human hand in sight. However, most of these automatic systems are being used with indoor feeding systems in continental Europe and meal is used to lure cows to the parlour. Ireland’s biggest dairying strength is its ability to grow grass so it would make no sense for farmers to spend money on feed when they can practically see the grass growing out in the field. The project involves training cows to leave the paddock, with the knowledge that they will be rewarded with fresh grass in a new paddock after milking. This is done by dividing up the paddocks into sections so that cows are encouraged to leave when the grass levels go down.

“The cows know that there is a new paddock of grass in the next section and in order to do that, they come out the gate and the roadway shunts them towards the parlour for milking,” she explains. “When they come back out, the intelligent gate system will know that the cow came from A section and must now go to B section.”

She says cows learn this behaviour surprisingly quickly. “Obviously the first time that such a machine is put in, it takes a while for the farmer to get used to it, and the cows. But after the first month or six weeks, it works away.”

Grass is a recurring theme at the centre, according to Dr Pat Dillon, Teagasc’s head of animal and grassland research. He says postgraduate students are researching everything from grass breeding and evaluation, to grazing management to grass physiology.

Dr Cathriona Foley is leading a project which helps farmers measure grass quantity more accurately. She says the ability to precisely estimate the quantity of grass in a field and then allocate the correct area for grazing, are two key factors affecting milk yield. Many farmers use a rising plate meter to measure grass quantity. This is an upright stick with a horizontal disc that moves up the stick, depending on the height and density of the grass underneath it. But it’s a slow and cumbersome method and the farmer takes 30 to 50 measurements to get the average grass height.

This project, which involves partners in France and Switzerland, as well as TrueNorth Technologies in Shannon, has gone one better by developing the “GrassHopper”. It has an ultra-sonic sensor with recorded GPS co-ordinates to precisely measure compressed grass height. The information can be automatically transferred to a smart device and then the internet cloud. The project is also looking at virtual fencing technology where collars on the cows issue a warning as they approach an invisible boundary, so that they are encouraged to graze in a chosen area.

But for researcher Dr Donagh Berry, it’s all about the genes. Up until recently, he says bulls were chosen because of their looks and pedigree.

“Now we’re looking directly at the DNA instead of trying to guess what kind of DNA they had. And because your DNA is the same throughout your life, we can do this in young calves. So instead of waiting five or six years to get this information, it now takes just a few weeks,” he says. Dr Berry says it has increased the accuracy of identifying the best animals by up to 54 per cent. “Just looking at the dairy industry alone, it has been worth €16 million in profit since we started this in 2009. Now we’re moving to beef cattle and we’re starting it in sheep too.”

The opening of the new centre neatly completes a circle which began when Paddy O’Keeffe became founding chairman of the FBD insurance company in the 1960s. The company, along with the Department of Agriculture co-funded the €4.5 million centre in his name. Dr Pat Dillon says the building stands as a legacy to his unrelenting demand for progress. “And it serves as a reminder to all of us of our responsibility to deliver new and better methods to further advance productivity in the future.”