How going digital helps dairy farmers grow productivity

This is the last of four case studies on business internet use conducted by Internet NZ and Google.
Rob Ford, LIC general manager farm systems.
Rob Ford, LIC general manager farm systems.

It's not surprising that there are lots of bulls at Livestock Improvement Corporation's (LIC) Hamilton campus. Hundreds of them graze in a complex of paddocks out the back. LIC's business, after all, revolves around supplying semen from the country's best beasts in order to continuously improve the national dairy herd.

What is surprising, though, is that of the 450-odd people who work at the complex, more are involved in looking after software than tending to livestock.

For General Manager Farm Systems Rob Ford, it makes perfect sense. "LIC's been in the data business for 100 years, really. Genetics is all about data, so while the technology we use to capture and analyse it has changed for sure, our core business hasn't."

Simply put, that business is helping LIC's 11,000 dairy farmer owners produce more high-quality milk efficiently. While feed and farm management practices have a role to play (and LIC helps out here too) the core business is about improving the bloodline, and these days the Internet is crucial to that.

The corporation maintains individual records on over 4 million cows, measuring not just milk volume but several key quality measures. By tracking cows' productivity against which bulls sired them, LIC's scientists remove the guesswork from choosing which bulls to breed from in the following season. When you consider that one prize dairy bull can pass his genes into an astounding 750,000 daughters, it's clearly a high stakes game. (Or possibly, for those bulls unlucky enough to not make the grade, a high steaks one.)

A generation ago, collecting that essential herd data was a manual process. Information about individual animals such as insemination dates, calving outcomes, illnesses, deaths and culls were recorded in the "Yellow Book" - an industry-standard notebook that every dairy farmer carried (and many still do).

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These days, LIC and its developers are doing everything they can to use technology to simplify and improve the process. At the National Fieldays in June last year it released Minda - a suite of free smartphone apps designed to replace many of the functions of the Yellow Book. So instead of spending time typing hand-written herd data from the Yellow Book into a computer to send to LIC, 4000 farmers are now using apps to collect information as they go, and sending it to LIC in real time.

The data doesn't just flow one way. LIC's herd records are accessible online to farmers from any Internet device, so they can see at any time how their herd is performing against national averages, and exactly how well each cow in the herd is doing.

"Farmers make decisions about animals every day. Which ones to inseminate and when, which animals to cull or sell if there's a drought or feed shortage... our data makes it easy for them to make those calls quickly and accurately," says Rob.

Good data also helps make up for another shortage - skilled farm workers. Despite the industry's best efforts, fewer young people are going into dairy, especially the younger generation taking on the family farm. There's a growing trend towards farm workers from overseas too. Objective, unequivocal data makes it easier for less experienced farmers to make sound decisions.

Things are changing in the milking shed too. Milk volume and quality are critical indicators - it's what farmers are in business for. The current herd testing approach is for an LIC employee to make regular farm visits and collect morning and evening milk samples from every cow in the herd, before taking them to one of LIC's lab facilities for analysis. Today, LIC is pushing the technology into the milking shed, with automatic sampling and analysis as each cow is milked. So a process that currently involves dozens of people making relatively infrequent farm visits, then transporting milk samples all over the country for analysis, is being replaced by continuous monitoring - and all that's being transported is data.

That does raise a couple of problems though, says Rob. "Reliable, fast Internet is key to farmers making the productivity gains the system can deliver. So we're a big fan of the Rural Broadband Initiative."

The other obstacle, ironically, is the herd mentality. "We're never going to get every farmer onto these new platforms at once," says Rob. "So we work hard to identify the early adopters, get them involved in developing the apps and systems, and let them lead the way."

Once a dairy farm switches to LIC's web-based tools and bloodline improvement programme there's a pretty clear upside, with Rob estimating that the difference between a traditional farm management and breeding approach and LIC's programme amounts to a productivity lift of between 15 and 20 percent for the average farm. That's more milk production per unit of feed.

The real benefit, though, is to the economy as a whole. By collecting and managing data efficiently, making the most of the Internet to put technology at the dairying front line, and making sound decisions about genetics, Rob says LIC delivers an annual benefit to the dairy industry of over $300 million. And that's no bull.

- NZ Herald

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