New Zealand's $19 billion export dairy industry loves artificial intelligence — this year cows are up to their necks in it.
Cow collars, or intelligent neckbands, are flying off rural store shelves this year, says David McCall, AI expert at dairy industry advocate, DairyNZ.
Hamilton-based agritech company Halter Group has a runaway success on its hands with its solar powered collar and mobile app, which moves and manages cows remotely, acts as virtual fencing and can detect optimal breeding time and deliver cow health alerts to farmers.
Across town, global security technology innovator Gallagher Group, has just signed off a deal fully acquiring Agersens, designer and developer of virtual fencing technology eShepherd, a collar enabling farmers to control the location and movement of cattle using a web application and an intelligent, solar-powered neckband connected to the internet via a base station.
Gallagher, which had owned 50 per cent of Agersens, plans to add to the product all manner of sensors and technology to help farmers with data gathering and cow health and welfare information.
McCall, DairyNZ's general manager responsible for science and economics suggests AI is old hat in the dairy industry.
"AI is enabled by machine learning and big data. It's just a continuum of information technology. It's not all brand new.
"IT in the dairy industry goes back to the late 80s — we had apps before people even used the word."
Measuring factors such as soil utility, how much a farmer should pay for a weaner calf and choosing the best bull to use in a particular herd, those apps have been "decision support" — IT jargon for helping people make decisions, one of the things AI is all about, says McCall.
It's also about "recommending" and "making" a decision.
"We are working with Microsoft and Aware Group (a Hamilton AI solutions exporter) and they break AI down into those categories.
"All that support has come with financial data as well. The next wave is more into sensors and robotics and some of that is more into 'making' decisions."
DairyNZ is doing a lot of research into feeding Halter and Gallagher products, says McCall.
"A lot of research going on now is sensing whether a cow is lame or about to calve, sensing whether it has a metabolic disease like milk fever. It doesn't sense the milk fever, it senses the cow is not right through behaviour.
At dairy genetics company LIC, also in Hamilton, they're working on sensor technology to detect mastitis, McCall says.
DairyNZ is leading a consortium of Microsoft, Aware Group and Waikato, Auckland and Lincoln universities, putting together researchers with those that can turn the findings into machine learning and AI.
"AI relies on big data and there's not a lot of big data on-farm compared to say climate data. Even the climate data for farmers is only medium data — it's not big, not like a supermarket would have pouring through every day. So we're looking at the best sources of big data and how to capture it, the real practicalities, and how would farmers interact with it.
"Microsoft is over here and very keen. It has said 'okay, there are a lot of people, particularly scientists, out there trying to develop apps, but let's start with the user, how this might work on-farm'."
McCall says weather data will be an important source along with "listening to the cows".
"Getting big data on cows ... the first real effort is cow welfare, cow wellbeing and proving the systems we run and the care of our animals because animal-farming industries are facing that competitive pressure."
Robotics is old hat in the industry. But it hasn't really taken off — probably because of farmer "conservatism" about systems change, the capital upfront cost, and because it's a system best suited to small dairy farms, freeing up a person to work off-farm, McCall says. He reckons there are only about 100 in New Zealand. So if farmers are shy about "system" change, how are they going to embrace more AI?
"I think it depends on how easy it is," says McCall. "New Zealand farmers are rapid adaptors," he says, citing the cow collar uptake.
AI is all about precision management — nothing new for Kiwi farmers.
"There's always an adoption period and scientists and others often get ahead of themselves about how easy this stuff is to use and apply.
"But the train has left the station."