The data driven dairy of the (near) future

The dairy industry is on the cusp of a revolution powered by technology and data. Brett Wiskar explores the possibilities.

Throughout the food industry we are witnessing a range of new trends across automation, data, and intelligent systems. The dairy sector is not immune to these trends and the impacts will change how the industry operates. The current breed of semi-automated milking systems for example, has increased yields, reduced labour inputs and improved reliability. Though this has led some to believe that dairies are already highly automated, a new wave of efficiency is just around the corner.

Semi-automation makes way for autonomy

Dairy equipment manufacturers are bringing increasingly sophisticated, automated systems to market. This level of autonomy doesn’t just provide labour efficiencies. These systems will manage the feed and dietary requirements of livestock, monitor the yield of each animal and automatically adjust feed intakes to maximise the output of each animal in the herd. This will in turn empower famers to learn, respond and adjust their operations in real time to optimise their business.

This is all part of a global trend known as Industry 4.0 or the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Dairies that embrace higher levels of automation and data driven insights across their operation will have significant advantages over the semi-automated operations of today.

Data will be the difference

Dairy farms will have data across all aspects of their operation: cows, feed, milk, weather, grazing locations and conditions. Data will be centralised and the farmer will be empowered to refine the operation remotely. This might be used for simple tasks such as closing a gate, adding supplements to the feed of a particular animal, or to review the impact of yesterday’s decisions.

The analysis of operational data en masse will lead to incremental, but importantly, sustainable improvements. Those improvements are unlikely to come from broad sweeping changes. They will come from smaller, compounding improvements that complement each other. For example, finding a 1-2 per cent increase in yield might come from a combination of increases in milk yield through changes in a herd’s diet; waste savings through transparent tracking of volumes throughout the product journey; and traits that increase milk production being identified and bred into the herd.

All of this will be enabled through insights coming from data. The automated nature of the next generation of dairy infrastructure will empower the data side of the industry in the following two ways.

Leveraging data from individual operations

All aspects of dairy operations, from the grass and feed to the end product, will be tracked and measured. This will allow farmers to make the changes needed to drive their operations into the future.

In the coming era, machine learning and predictive analytics will optimise operations on a micro level by making automatic adjustments, that the farmer would never have found, across the business. Although the gains will be minute, they will have a significant cumulative impact.

The power of combined knowledge

The true power of data is derived from an organisation’s ability to interrogate multiple data sets. For example, Google Ventures recently invested US$15 million in a US based start-up, Farmers Business Network. This organisation allows famers to upload their operational data with anonymity. This is then pooled with data from farms with similar characteristics. Farmers can then access and benefit from that pooled data and the combined learning experiences.

Data pooling like this is expected to impact the dairy industry in the next few years and the data is likely to emerge from one of two sources. The first is large scale dairy operations looking to gain visibility into and empower their supply chains. The second is from the manufacturers of the autonomous systems.

The future will favour the brave

The transition for the dairy industry from the current semi-automated model to a more autonomous model will be a challenge, but not without its rewards. As new innovations are unlocked by data and automation, a wave will sweep through the industry and the early adopters of these technologies stand to gain the most.

Those who move decisively to adopt a technology and data driven approach to their operations will be the powerful players in the industry of the next generation.

[Brett Wiskar is Wiley’s Commercial Technology Director. He leads the company’s data and technology consulting initiatives and is focussed on driving innovation, operational and commercial outcomes in the food industry]

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