Monday, April 22, 2024

Digging into digital on Lincoln Uni’s dairy farm

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Lincoln University’s developmental dairy farm is working out how to get data to better serve the needs of farmers, both as a measuring tool and a way to improve management.
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Technology developed for the Australian mining industry has been adapted for farming and is being trialled on Lincoln University’s Integral Health Dairy Farm.

The trial farm at Lincoln’s Ashley Dene research station is testing a new way of dairy farming, one that makes the health of cows, the environment, staff and the milk the farm produces more important than production – but which also demands an economic return.

A major part of the project is the digital layer, using cutting-edge technology to measure the results of research projects and also improve management.

“The digital layer is an essential part of the Integral Health Dairy Farm in being able to say, ‘Yes, what we’re doing is working’, and having data to back that up,” says Associate Professor in Applied Computing Stuart Charters, who heads this part of the project.

“Over time it will be an integral part of managing operations on the farm as we get that data integrated and work out the best ways to present that. I think it’s also really important because it gives a testing ground for technologies.”

The 100-cow, 43ha farm is a trial ground for a way of farming that better addresses the multiple needs of stakeholders and enhances farming’s standing in the community as well as satisfying an increasingly picky market.

That means, among other things, trying different pasture mixes, planting shrubs and low-growing trees for shelter as well as browsing, alongside world-leading real-time measurement of carbon using a Green Artificial Intelligence Technology (GAIT) tower.

“It measures carbon in the atmosphere and has some ground based sensors so we can make some interpretations about what’s beneath ground, what’s being sequestered. It provides some ground truth data for the impact for this type of system so that other people are able to have confidence in what that might mean for their farm,” says Charters.

The scientists are working with a variety of companies on various parts of the project, among them an Australian company called FTP Solutions, which made its name in the mining industry by bringing together essential data from multiple sources. 

They’re now expanding into agriculture and are working with Lincoln researchers to integrate farm data into an easily digestible form.

“In the mining industry you’ve got lots of different suppliers producing equipment that needs to be monitored and managed so they’ve worked on integrating all sorts of diverse bits of data and providing what gets called a single pane of glass,” Charters says.

In mining that could include GPS tracking of vehicles, keeping track of fuel levels and noise levels or monitoring autonomous mining – essential information all available on a single display.  

“Often what you find on farms is that there’s lots of bits of technology being used but they all reside in their own app or their own piece of software.  It’s one of those common frustrations so one of things we’re doing with people who partner with us is agreeing to share data and make data open,” Charters says.

“It’s not taking everything away and replacing it, what we’re looking at much more is what you might call a federated model where bits of software will be able to share data between themselves.”

GAIT tower
Lincoln University’s dairy farm is trialling different pasture mixes and trees alongside world-leading, real-time measurement of carbon using a Green Artificial Intelligence Technology tower.

FTP Solutions have also pioneered long-range radio technology for getting data back to base when communication is challenging. 

“If you’re mining in remote Australia where there’s pretty much no cell phone coverage, you have to solve a connectivity problem there and similar things apply in the New Zealand back country or high country stations.

“There’s lots of potential for having better connectivity on farm with technology like that, whether that’s remote sensors being able to beam stuff directly back as opposed to having to put a cell phone connection on there, or manually go and collect data off a data logger.”

Charters says farmers could drown in all the data being produced so it’s important they get what they actually need, otherwise it can just make life harder.

“If you have to use a clunky interface at the end of the day on the computer or in the office when you’d much rather be going home for dinner, is that going to end up being a good outcome? Probably not, you’re going to leave it in your notebook.

“Part of the solution is developing algorithms, some of it’s thinking about how we display the information and some of it’s how we communicate it.”

Some of the data being generated on the research farm comes from the smart ProTag ear tags the cows are all carrying, including location, heat and rumination stats for each animal. In future, collars that also provide virtual fencing may be used but for now the smaller, lighter tags are preferred.

“There are some smarts in what the team from ProTag have done, which means they’re not just relying on GPS, which is battery intensive.  They have other positioning technologies so you can work out where all the animals are without needing all of them to be receiving a GPS signal all of the time.”   

Another planned facility on the farm is a pastoral health shelter (also dubbed a “mootel birthing centre”), which not only provides a sheltered space for calving but which will also be used to capture methane, ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions for scientific study.

“That’s a really good example of how bringing together multiple bits of technology impacts on the farming system.  Part of the key is the right animal in the right place at the right time for the right amount of time so lots of things on the farm are multi-functional, they’re doing many things,” says Charters.

The plan is to have an intelligent compost management system in the mootel, finding a way to make the system foolproof. 

“A number of farmers are starting to do composting barns and at the moment they’re managed by thumb.  The horror story is the farm manager goes on leave for two weeks and leaves somebody to look after it and when he gets back the compost has died,” Charters remarks.

“Compost is a biological system, it’s active, so we’re hoping to introduce some instrumentation to give information on temperature and oxygen that helps manage that compost so that you get closer to that circular economy on-farm.

“You could have automatic sprinklers or robotics, depending on how far down the line you want to go and I guess that’s a nice thing about a development farm, you can say how far do we want to take this or what’s the minimum we need to do and then what are the advantages.”  

While Charters relishes the opportunity to test and develop digital innovations on the research farm, he’s quick to point out this is not technology for the sake of technology.

“We talk about artificial intelligence but actually the technology is about intelligence amplification, it’s assisting the farmer to do what they want to do and doing that in a way that’s economical so their time is used more effectively.”

This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

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