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Teagasc: Bringing precision to agriculture

Precision dairy project brings information technology and agricultural skills together

With the EU milk quota regime due to end in April 2015, Irish farmers will for the first time in more than a generation be able to produce as much milk as they want whenever they want without fear of levies or fines from Brussels.

As a result, dairy farmers around the country have indicated intentions to increase milk output by as much as 50 per cent but they will have to achieve this through a combination of increased herd size and improved productivity if it is to add to their profitability.

Their efforts could be assisted by a new four-year research project which has been launched by Teagasc. The aim of the Precisiondairy project is to realise the potential of ICT to enable improved production by Irish agriculture as well to safeguard the environment and help guarantee food security in the future.

The project will develop a prototype platform that combines the disciplines of sensor and biosensor development, communication standards and database design with modellers, existing databases and mathematicians. The objective is to increase the environmental and economic sustainability of Irish pasture based dairy farms.

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The project is a collaboration between Teagasc, Waterford Institute of Technology's Telecommunication Software and Systems Group (TSSG), and commercial partner True North Mapping from Shannon, Co Clare. It has been awarded Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funding within the Future Agri-Food research theme.

The Precisiondairy project is being co-ordinated by Dr Laurence Shalloo from Teagasc in collaboration with Dr William Donnelly of TSSG.

Teagasc will focus on the development, interpretation and integration of precision technologies in pasture-based systems, while TSSG will focus on the development of sensors and biosensors to capture data at farm level, using ICT to develop communication platforms to transfer the data to a central database. TNM will look at the development of technologies for automated pasture measurement and sensors for monitoring animal activity.

The project will use ICT to develop communication platforms to transfer the sensor data to a central database and enrich it with external databases. A key outcome will be the provision to end users of real-time solutions to both animal and pasture based management issues.

Information technology

“The aim of the joint initiative between Teagasc and SFI is to link Teagasc scientists in the food and agriculture disciplines with scientists from other disciplines, such as ICT and sensors to strengthen innovation in the agri-food sector,”, says Teagasc director Prof

Gerry Boyle

.

“The convergence of this broad range of disciplines will help underpin the profitability, competitiveness and sustainability targets set out in the Department of Agriculture’s Food Harvest 2020 strategy. The project fits within the remit of sustainable food production and processing, one of the 14 areas identified by the National Research Prioritisation Exercise”.

According to Prof Willie Donnelly of TSSG, information technology is changing the shape of the agriculture industry across the globe by providing improvements in the quality of production of crops, the health of livestock and the quality of life for farmers.

"Ireland, through aligning its expertise in ICT and agriculture, is in a unique position to be the global centre for smart agriculture, creating major employment and economic impact," he says.

The practical benefits of the project are straightforward. “If a farmer knows that grass growth in a paddock is poor he can introduce silage or supplements to the cattle feed before milk yields go down,” Shalloo explains. “It’s much better to have the information at an early stage before the yield is affected.”

Grass sensor

At the farm level the aim is to develop four different devices related to grass growth, animal behaviour, livestock management, and milk quality and yield.

The grass growth sensor is fairly simple. “This is a sensor located in a paddock which will measure grass growth in the area and communicate it back to a central control station,”, says Shalloo. “The second sensor is actually three sensors in one and it can tell the location of each animal in the paddock, what they are doing such as eating or chewing the cud, and whether they are in heat or not.”

The third device is related to what Shalloo describes as virtual fencing. Instead of having different paddocks fenced off from each other this device would enable cattle to be restricted to grazing in one of several paddocks in one large field with no need for physical fencing.

“A location sensor would indicate where the animal is and if it strays out of the area it is meant to be in signals such as vibrations or noises can be sent to get it to move back.”

The final device tests milk volume and quality and is fitted to the milking machine.

“When you put all of these together they will enable a farmer to monitor a dairy herd from one remote location making the farm more efficient and productive as a result,” Shalloo says.

The intention is also to use the devices at wider level as well to deliver national benefits.

“We will develop a prototype platform which combines the most advanced technologies around sensors and biosensors and communication to capture data at farm level and then use advanced computation biology and mathematical modelling techniques to evaluate long-term trends as well as establishing short-term decision support for Irish dairy farmers”, says Shalloo.

“We will use ICT to develop communication platforms to transfer the data to a central database and then merge this with existing animal and grassland databases to form a centralised database. This database can then be interrogated to determine relationships and provide real-time information to end users.”

The €1 million project has just begun but Shalloo is confident of success. “The technology we develop will have to be relatively cheap and robust if it is to be useful to farmers,” he says. “I think we will succeed in this once we keep our focus.”