Deborah McConnell  -  Automating the dairy farmer: exploiting the potential of precision technology on dairy farms

Thomas Henry Foundation

I am a farmer’s daughter from Omagh, Co. Tyrone in Northern Ireland. After studying Geography at Durham University, I went on to complete a PhD with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute and Queen’s University Belfast. During my studies I investigated different strategies to improve phosphorus management on dairy farms.

Following this, I spent a year working on the family farm before hopping back across the Irish Sea to Warwickshire to join AHDB Dairy, the levy organisation for GB dairy farmers. I work as a research and development manager, overseeing the grassland, forage and soils research programme. We place real importance on making sure the research funded by the levy is practical and applicable to farmers, helping create sustainable, progressive and profitable businesses. I really enjoy discussing research ideas and sharing the results of projects with farmers and industry members across GB.

Outside of work I like nothing more than returning home and pulling on the wellies. The family farm, a third generation farm, consists of 150 dairy cows and replacements, 150 breeding ewes and a small suckler beef enterprise. One of the key focus areas of the farm has been to improve overall production efficiency by making the most of new knowledge and technology. As a result we have been heavily involved in a number of on-farm research projects in recent years.

This has also meant that technology has an increasing role to play in the day to day management of the dairy herd. This has helped create a more labour efficient working environment but is not without its challenges! Nonetheless, by using smart technology it does mean that I can keep up to date with what’s happening on the farm when I’m in England.

In my spare time I am a keen follower of Ulster and Ireland Rugby, and enjoy running, cycling and hiking.

I am very grateful to my sponsor, the Thomas Henry Foundation, for supporting my Nuffield study and for providing me with this fantastic opportunity.

  • Project Details

Precision technology has advanced rapidly in the last decade and has many potential applications within a dairy farm. These technologies can deliver a range of services from simple data collection to sophisticated algorithms for decision making software.

With the wide biological, climatic and temporal variation which can occur on farm, the dairy industry remains a perfect application for precision technologies and in some areas e.g. automatic milking systems, the development and adoption of this technology is advanced.

The effectiveness of precision technologies is dictated not only by the value of the information they generate but also by the end users ability to find, interpret and apply this information to develop the farm business. To assist farm business in achieving maximum return on investment when implementing new technologies, it is important to understand how farmers are currently using data provided by established precision technologies, understand the skill base required by these techniques, and consider how this can be translated to other less established technologies.

Over the course of the study I aim to:

• Understand how farmers and third party are currently using data provided by precision technology such as automatic milking systems (AMS) to optimise cow management and offer recommendations for precision technology providers on end user requirements

• Evaluate the skills base required for farmers and third parties to effectively manage precision technology on dairy farms and provide recommendations of training requirements for both existing end users and new entrants to the dairy sector

• Consider how the use of precision technology can be integrated in other areas of the dairy business (e.g. forage management) to improve the profitability and sustainability of UK dairy farms

• Explore the potential to collate data from precision technologies on commercial farms to improve our understanding of farm practices, develop new technologies and facilitate new mechanisms for conducting research.