30 Apr 2024

Adoption opportunities of the Internet of Things (IoT)

The UK dairy industry stands at the forefront of global dairy supply chains, poised to meet the challenges of a world population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. Amidst the urgency of ensuring efficient food production, climate change presents a formidable obstacle, with rising temperatures implicating ruminant population contributions to global warming adversely impacting milk production in cattle farming. The importance of maintaining social licence to produce a healthy, nutritious, and cost-effective foodstuff cannot be overlooked. As an industry the expectation on government to fully endorse and support the dairy sector cannot be relied upon and we must ensure we are realistic and accountable for the part we play in the net zero agenda.

To confront these looming challenges, UK farmers must embrace disruptive technologies that may initially seem alien to traditional agricultural practices. The Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, machine learning, and genetic technologies such as genomics are increasingly pertinent tools for modernising the sector. The intuitive knowledge accrued over years of experience must now be augmented by data-driven insights facilitated by technology.

In the realm of dairy farming, IoT technology will assume a pivotal role in resource monitoring and optimisation. By connecting disparate objects within dairy farms, IoT sensors and cloud computing enable real-time monitoring, traceability in the value chain, and quality assurance for both farmers and consumers. Furthermore, IoT platforms and integrated AI engines will continue to revolutionise dairy farming by automating processes, enhancing resource efficiency, and enabling predictive analytics for cattle health management.

Dairy farming and its continual efficiency are integral to long-term milk production sustainability, and UK farmers are leveraging modern and innovative technologies to automate milking systems and monitor cattle health parameters. Precision farming, characterised by data monitoring and efficient performance analysis, is becoming the norm. Adoption is increasing and producers are becoming more convinced in the value of investing in the various technologies available. Labour shortages and high costs are driving the adoption of mechanisation techniques to sustain milk production systems. The successful adoption of AMS milking systems, calf rearing tools such as pasteurisers, milk taxis and milk feed stations are all assisting better consistency of these key production requirements alongside addressing the labour challenges seen on almost all UK farms. Considering feed costs, replacement strategies and animal health are among the highest production costs/opportunities, below are some comments on these areas specifically.

Breeding Infrastructure and Genetics:

The focus may need to shift from increasing animal numbers to enhancing productivity per animal, improved animal health, and most importantly, extending the lifetime productivity of the animals in our care. While we can show numerous graphs highlighting increases in milk production, fertility improvement and lower SCC metrics, are we also able to show extended lifespan for our cows? I would suggest that the balance of improved genetic potential and proving the financial reality of that genetic improvement has the greatest opportunity in our older cows. They are the animals who have cancelled out rearing costs and are now capable of producing high milk volumes yet are often the first to make way for the next “genetically superior” heifer to enter the herd. This does not necessarily align with the mantra of getting “more from less”, particularly given the carbon footprint metrics around herd inventory. There have been several studies comparing the financial benefit of genetic improvements, but it is interesting to reference the comments of Albert De Vries in his study “Economic trade-offs between genetic improvement and longevity in dairy cattle” in which he comments “Optimal voluntary culling, and therefore cow longevity, continues to be more dependent on the difference between heifer raising cost and cow cull prices than on genetic improvement. The major way to capture the accelerating genetic improvement in sires is not by greatly increasing cow culling, hence reducing longevity. This is confirmed by old and new studies”.

Animal Feed and Fodder:

The demand for high-quality feed and fodder to meet the dietary requirements of milking animals is escalating, exacerbated by the trend of carbon accounting, geo-political supply chains and climate change policies. Ensuring efficient feed allocation and utilisation will become ever more reliant on accurate inventory and feed management alongside accurate identification. The solutions available ranging from in-parlour/out of parlour feed stations, TMR mixer wagon software’s combined with EID identification, milk metering and the utilisation of milk recording will enable analysis of efficiency of the most productive animals rather than the average of groups within the herd. IoT technology options will facilitate the analysis of these crucial input/output parameters enabling smarter and more responsive management decision opportunities.

Animal Health:

Healthcare and disease diagnostic solutions are imperative to address the needs of all productive animals, regardless of production system, underscoring the significance of animal health management. The implementation and utility of the sensor technologies available on farms today are primary tools in the management of health and disease detection and treatment protocols developed with on farm and veterinary collaboration are documenting progress and providing consumers with accurate data. The requirement for reporting and transparency in the area is essential to our processors and retailers and above all else support our social licence to responsibly keep and care for our animals. These sensors are well established and reliable options and the ability to reference the incidence of health challenges against other farm variables (weather, feed changes, group changes etc) will give better informed analysis utilising the autonomous reporting nature of these datasets and less reliance on manual human data recording providing increased accuracy and consistency.

Not quite the promised land…

Regardless of the highlighted opportunities challenges persist in fully realising the benefits of IoT technologies. These include digital infrastructure limitations, high implementation costs, the need for skilled labour, data privacy concerns, and the imperative for enhanced collaboration among supply chain stakeholders. The value of the data, often misrepresented in discussions linked to a direct financial return, is in the ability of these data to integrate, reference and provide insights that deliver direct returns as labour efficiency, cost benefit or health/production improvements. The cost of mining, formatting, and processing these datasets are huge and prohibitive for any singular dairy farm. With that in mind, ensuring that the investments made in technology can be utilised in an IoT framework with suppliers who are happy to share this data should be a demand of the customer.

Despite these obstacles, technological advancements offer tremendous potential for the UK dairy industry. Addressing these challenges will be pivotal in ensuring the industry's competitiveness and sustainability in the face of evolving global demands.

M Halliwell
Holstein UK Group Commercial Director
April 2024