DairyGlobal - Embracing the farm technology revolution
Smart farming

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Embracing the farm technology revolution

Farmers recognise the need for new farm technology and are embracing it, but understanding the monetisation of it is another story. Dairy Global looked at the Keenan diet feeders and how they can help farmers optimise their nutritional approach.

The smart farming era is now upon us and is changing the industry via robots, sensors, software and most importantly, network connectivity. Even though it seems new technology for farms is being introduced on a daily basis, a significant percentage of it will never enter production. And, on a wider perspective, smart farming still has a long way to go as it is currently rated in tenth position on the ten most popular Internet of Things applications. This puts it well behind first place smart home, smart grid in fourth place and connected car in sixth place.

Robert Walker, CEO of KEENAN systems: "Farmers are not scared of technology, but they need to know which ones work and are worth investing in." Photo: Alltech
Robert Walker, CEO of KEENAN systems: "Farmers are not scared of technology, but they need to know which ones work and are worth investing in." Photo: Alltech

Farmers are not scared of technology

Robert Walker, who was appointed chief executive officer of Keenan in 2016, is positive smart technology will play a vital role in future farming. Keenan is introducing its own fresh technology to optimise its InTouch feeding system, something the company hopes will revolutionise feeding efficiencies around the world. Since its first introduction in 2009 Keenan’s InTouch communications system is now being used on 3,000 farms across the world feeding over 300,000 animals. The system itself has undergone some changes in that time and in 2011 it developed further to use cloud technology as a vehicle for transporting information from farm to computer. Now under the umbrella of Alltech Keenan, InTouch is adding some extra features including a new control box and a new app to make it easier for farmers to use. Basically, InTouch is a live review and support service with skilled nutritionists using simple technology to ensure farmers are mixing the exact rations their animals require every day. “Farmers are not scared of technology,” said Robert, “but they need to know which ones work and are worth investing in.” Mr Walker, who hails from South Africa, was appointed as Keenan’s new boss just after the company’s acquisition by Alltech, with the remit of driving the company forward. He said: “Farmers use the latest technology in their civilian lives so why would they not use it in their businesses? “The only problem they have with new technology is the monetisation of this technology. They need to know exactly how their investments can generate savings and returns.

Basically, InTouch is a live review and support service with skilled nutritionists using simple technology to ensure farmers are mixing the exact rations their animals require every day. Photo: Chris McCullough
Basically, InTouch is a live review and support service with skilled nutritionists using simple technology to ensure farmers are mixing the exact rations their animals require every day. Photo: Chris McCullough

Agriculture is not investing in itself

“Smart technology is all about data capture and how that data can help drive efficiency on a farm or any business. “The farmer owns that data and it is specific to his business. In terms of the monetary value of that data, the farmer needs to know how it can save him or her money. “Also though, they need to know what exactly they are paying for in terms of new technology,” said Robert. There are many new software applications being introduced to agriculture and farmers are being asked to sign up to contracts with monthly payments to avail of that technology. It can be a confusing world with lots of marketing hype convincing farmers it is for them and will save their business money. One concern that Mr Walker has in terms of new technology is that agriculture is not investing in itself when it comes to the smart farming sector.

Robert said: “Those companies that are investing in agricultural technology are external to the industry. They obviously see the potential smart farming has but the agricultural industry here is not investing in itself.

“It’s something we need to address more closely to make smart farming work. Although that sentiment is made even more difficult when governments tell farmers to stick with what they got because they know it works.”

Seamus Byrne, 63, milks 190 pedigree Holstein cows at Ardcath in County Meath. He has been using the Keenan system for the past 20 years and in that time has only worked with three Keenan diet feeders.
Seamus Byrne, 63, milks 190 pedigree Holstein cows at Ardcath in County Meath. He has been using the Keenan system for the past 20 years and in that time has only worked with three Keenan diet feeders.

Farm experience with the system

Improved milk quality and herd fertility are just two of the benefits a dairy farmer in the Republic of Ireland has achieved by using the Keenan InTouch technology. Seamus Byrne, 63, milks 190 pedigree Holstein cows at Ardcath in County Meath together with his wife Mary. The family use the herd prefix Boolies Great for their herd which is producing an average yield of 9,000 litres per cow per year. In times when gross margins are tight Seamus is one of the lucky farmers to be making a healthy profit from milking cows, a feat achievable by keeping a tight eye on his costs of production. By selling some of his milk on fixed contracts and the rest at normal rates Seamus is currently receiving € 0.42 per litre on average and estimates his cost of production at € 0.25 per litre.

Wouldn’t go back to the old method

Seamus has been using the Keenan system for the past 20 years and in that time has only worked with three Keenan diet feeders. His current one is the Keenan 360 model with a capacity of 20 cubic metres and is only a couple of years old. This machine is fitted with the InTouch technology that works as a management tool for the farmer to increase the mix accuracy and efficiency.

“I have been using Keenan for 20 years now and have recently moved on to the InTouch system,” said Seamus. “At first I was a bit reluctant to use the technology but now I wouldn’t go back to the old method. “All I have to do is use the remote control from the telehandler and the control unit on the wagon tells me what to load up. It really does all the work for you.” With only 33 acres in the locality of the farmyard to utilise for grazing, Seamus keeps his cows housed most of the time only allowing them out for a few hours in the day, on a 21 day rotation, during the summer period. Three cuts of silage are harvested from 55 acres on another farm a few miles away as well as 36 acres of maize that Seamus grows for his dairy rations. His milk is currently sitting at 4% butterfat and 3.5% protein but that’s not where it was before starting to use the InTouch system. By using the Keenan system Seamus managed to increase his protein content by 0.3% and his butterfat by the same margin. “We were having trouble getting the butterfat over 4%,” said Seamus. “Having introduced the InTouch system and using Alltech minerals we saw the butterfat jump to 4.1% at its highest and the protein to 3.5%.”

Benefit of direct alerts

Seamus operates a predominantly spring calving herd and also witnessed his herd fertility improve as well on the InTouch system. His cows are lasting five lactations with a 20% replacement rate. He said: “Our calving index fell from over 400 days down to 380 days and we have 60% of the cows holding to the first service using AI.” Seamus feeds his dairy cows a ration containing 10kg brewers grains, 10kg maize, 25kg grass silage, 1.5kg straw and 7kg of a blend formulated for the specific needs of the herd. One of the vital roles the InTouch live system plays is that it can detect when there is a problem with the ration and sends an alert both to the farmer and the InTouch office in Dunboyne. During one such occasion the butterfat content of the herd dropped and the InTouch system picked up there was an inconsistency in the ration that Seamus was mixing. “It wasn’t long before I received a phone call from the InTouch team asking me what was wrong with the mix,” he said. “In actual fact I had run out of the normal straw I was using and had switched to rape straw which was lower feeding value. That is why the butterfat dropped, and that is another benefit of the system.”

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