Digital Dairy: optimising the value of precision technology in the UK dairy industry
Dr Deborah McConnell
Agriculture is changing. Developments in positioning systems, aerial technologies, and large scale data collection, with a promise of vast potential, are infiltrating into agricultural sectors. In this generation, technology development is expected to result in the greatest step-change we will see in the agricultural industry, causing fundamental shifts in our understanding and management of soils, plants and animals, and their interactions. Bringing knowledge from the experiences of those adopting digital techniques in other parts of the world, this study set out to explore how the potential value of technology on UK dairy farms can be maximised.
Globally, existing precision technologies are already offering a number of benefits to dairy farming - most notably the potential to drive more efficient use of inputs such as labour (through the use of robotics), feeding (through animal identification and precision concentrate allocation) and nutrients (via variable rate fertiliser application). Within the UK there is significant scope to encourage uptake of these technologies to drive an increase in pre-farm gate technical efficiency. In addition, emerging precision technologies from other grassland-based dairy production regions across the world - such as grass yield and quality mapping technologies, animal grazing behaviour sensors, and virtual fencing - require further investigation in UK climes. Additional value can be gleaned by integrating data capture from multiple sensors: although data integration remains a challenge, and industry-wide initiatives to do this require further road testing. Technological applications that operate throughout the food chain will be key in addressing future consumer demands for safe, high welfare, sustainably produced and traceable food.
However, investments in technology must be accompanied by a recognition of adequate return for the business. Purchasing and installing technology alone does not automatically guarantee improvements in either farm management or technical efficiency. Currently, three barriers hinder this value capture: adequate skills, recognition of the benefit of data and technology benchmarking.
There is a clear skills gap both on-farm and in the supporting industry driven by an absence of training in technology use, data management and data interpretation skills. Much greater commitment is needed to training and software support to realise the technology potential. The changing skill requirement on dairy farms also gives great opportunity, as yet unrealised, to make the industry attractive to a new generation of skilled personnel.
Failure to move from intuitive to data-driven decisions limits both technology uptake and technology benchmarking, leaving a paucity of evidence on the cost-benefit of these technologies. Investment requires clear vision of why the purchase is being made, and identification of appropriate performance targets in line with the overarching direction of the business. Technology users must understand how to influence and improve on these performance targets if successful technology integration in dairy farm businesses is to be achieved.
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