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Data science a growth area in Irish agriculture

Robotics and AI-guided decision support systems are now common on Irish farms

Farming is becoming an increasingly high-tech business. Robotics, advanced telematics systems, drone technology and AI-guided decision support systems have become common features of Irish farms.

Advanced data science is also coming into its own. “An excellent example of its use is the economic breeding index for beef and dairy cattle,” says Stan Lalor, Teagasc’s director of knowledge transfer. “We use data to analyse and evaluate the genetic potential of animals. Where Teagasc comes in is to support farmers to make decisions through a simple index system which is expressed in terms of the potential economic value of animal to farmer for one decision over another. That might be related to fertility, the quality of milk, longevity, or other factors. We express that in an easily understandable index.”

The index is now moving beyond pure economic measures. “We are now looking at the potential to select animals for their impact on the environment,” Lalor says.

Machinery is also benefiting from technological advances. “Positioning systems enables things like auto-steering. When sowing a field, the farmer can make sure there is no overlap or waste of seed and time. The same applies with fertilisers, they can be spread much more accurately. Very few fields are square, for example, and machinery can be programmed to only use half the sprayer in certain sections. The benefits include reduced costs and chemical use and that links back to environmental issues.”


That same technology can also be used to protect the soil. “Controlled traffic planning can take the tractor back on the exact route it took to go in and leave the rest of the soil untouched and free from compaction damage,” Lalor says. “The technology doesn’t come cheap, but it’s moving fast.”

Another technology that is getting a lot of attention at the moment in the dairy sector is sexed semen for artificial insemination. At the moment when a farmer gets a semen straw there is a 50:50 chance of what gender the progeny will be. With sexed semen dairy farmers have a much higher chance of breeding more valuable female calves.

“Farm-management software has also improved,” says Lalor. “The PastureBase Ireland grassland management decision support tool captures background data from farms and uses a common measurement to quantify grass growth among other things. This supports farmers when making grassland management decisions. If there isn’t a lot of grass, the farmer can decide if they need to introduce feed. If there is surplus grass, they can make silage. That’s just one example, there are dozens of others out there.”

And those advances are coming into the public domain. We are all familiar with the farming weather forecasts and the potato-blight warnings,” he adds. “Now we have a forecast which gives expected grass growth for the week ahead. Those predictions allow farmers to make management decisions.”

Some of the latest Irish developed agri technologies were featured at the recent Enterprise Ireland Innovation Arena Awards. Normally, run in conjunction with the National Ploughing Championships, this is the second year for the Innovation Arena to be held in a virtual format.

Marine biotech

This year’s winner was marine biotech company Brandon Bioscience of Tralee, Co Kerry, which worked with traditional fertiliser manufacturer Target Fertilisers to develop an innovative new biostimulant product using extracts from common brown seaweed that has the potential to reduce chemical nitrogen input on farms by up to 20 per cent.

“This is potentially huge for agriculture because of the targets being set for reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium use as well as greenhouse-gas emissions,” says James Maloney, senior regional development executive with Enterprise Ireland.

“An area we looked at for the first time in this year’s awards is the use of technology in the equine industry,” he adds. “The equine industry is huge in Ireland. Many yards have problems with paperwork. If you have a €5 million horse that has received an injection it might get a second one if it hasn’t been documented. That can be a huge problem.”

That problem has been addressed by this year’s best overall start-up award winner. Jennifer and Kevin Corley, founders of EquiTrace, have developed an app that works with a horse’s microchip to identify, locate and track individual animals as they move while also recording animal temperature and health records when used with a Merck Bio-Thermo chip and scanner.

Other award winners addressed issues such as sustainability, cattle health and beehive activity. “Carbon Harvesters has developed a framework that measures, reports and verifies sustainability practices in farms,” Maloney says. “Moonsyst International has developed a device which is inserted into the rumen and monitors activity. It is more accurate than a wearable device and accurately detects heats, monitors health conditions and helps improve productivity.”

The Moonsyst Smart Rumen monitoring system is supported by cloud-based software that can be accessed on a phone and PC.

“Apis Protect has created a device no bigger than a mobile phone which goes inside the lid of a beehive,” he continues. “It looks at hive activity, temperature, movement, noise levels and so on. When you lift the lid off a beehive it takes the bees about about three days to settle down again, so this device is very useful. It learns from other hives as well and has a GPS tracker to trace stolen hives.”

“Irish agri-tech innovation is in very a good place,” Maloney adds. “The technologies being developed here are well regarded on a global scale. We are also seeing more and more collaborations between non-agriculture and agriculture companies.”

Putting that technology to good use is of vital importance, according to Lalor. “Social media is increasingly being used as a networking tool by farmers,” he says. “They are using it for knowledge transfer and to gain an understanding of how technology can help them with improve profitability and deal with issues like climate change. Teagasc has farm-advisory teams who help farmers understand how to interpret data and link it back to own farm and how to out the latest technology to good use. We are trying to bring all farmers on a journey.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times