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10 Apr, 2018

AgTech - Helping Drive Better Decisions

Head of Food & AgriBusiness, David Leydon, gives an overview of the AgTech sector including data, investment, on the farm impact and environment.

Head of Food & AgriBusiness, David Leydon, gives an overview of the AgTech sector including data, investment, on the farm impact and environment.

Spotify, Netflix and Airbnb have all disrupted their respective industries of music, TV and accommodation. Increasingly agriculture is also being changed and disrupted by technology and the increasing investment being made in AgTech.

So what is AgTech? It’s simply a term to describe how digital technology is being used in agriculture and covers a multitude from:

  • IoT (Internet of Things): almost everything on the farm can now create data including the animals

  • The use of imaging and sensors

  • The creation of masses of data, or big data

  • Robotics for feeding or milking or driving the driverless tractor

  • Precision agriculture and indeed predictive agriculture

  • Drones for mapping and management

Data

The amount of data available should help farmers make better decisions, reduce labour and increase efficiencies. The challenge will be to gain beneficial insights, allowing a decision can be made at the right time in the field or in the farmyard. ICBF are an excellent example of a company using big data to help inform farmer decision making about breeding.

These insights lead to valuable data which can be of interest to suppliers. However, serious questions remain about who owns the data created on farm and given the recent Facebook data scandal it is important for farmers to address how they can protect their data.

Investment

An increasing amount of venture capital finance is being invested in AgTech companies from a range of sources.

In Ireland, Yield Lab have their European base in Galway and are led by Paul Finnerty ex CEO of ABP Food Group. Yield lab invests in early stage companies that have the potential to make a significant impact on the global AgriFood sector.

Alltech, have also created an accelerator for AgTech companies with DogPatch Labs. It begins with mentoring but has the opportunity for investment.

Significantly, the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) are investing €40 million in the Finistere-managed AgTech venture funds – €20 million in the Ireland AgTech Fund and €20 million in a global AgTech fund.

At a global level, Google Ventures is investing in the Farmer Business Network in the US which is delivering analytics, input buying and crop sales to American farmers.

On the farm

We know that all companies in all sectors are impacted by technology in some way. Many Irish companies are investing in their digital capacity not just from a sales and marketing perspective but from a process, innovation, cost saving perspective.

We are lucky in Ireland to have global leaders, like the Edmond Harty led Dairymaster in Kerry, at the forefront in the use of technology in dairying.

Lely, a Dutch based company, pride themselves as leading in robotics. Robotic milking is now part of the consideration when a farm business is expanding the enterprise or coming into dairying as a new entrant and while there are multiple options Lely are dominant.

At farm level, heat detection or farm management are practical ways to use AgTech in your farm business.

  • Heat detection

Moocall, Censortec and Heatime are just some of the companies bringing AgTech to the business of getting your cows in calf as efficiently and easily as possible.

Moocall recently brought their heat detection product to market after their very successful calving product. Their heat detection product uses a collar that is worn by a stock or a teaser / vasectomised bull. Moocall eartags are attached to all cows and heifers. The collar then uses cow/bull proximity, mounting behaviour and bull activity levels to determine to an extremely high level of accuracy when a cow or a heifer is in heat.

In Mullingar, the Efficient Farm Solutions team have their Heatime product. Based around behaviour, movement and activity, a tag embedded with sensors is fitted to the cow’s collar which then identifies changes in normal activity and behaviour and detects heat activity. .

Dairymaster have their MooMonitor system while, also in Kerry, Censortec are representing in Ireland. They use neck and leg collars to manage heat detection.

  • Farm management

There are a range of companies in the farm and herd management space. Some want to be hubs for the industry and take data feeds from other providers, some want the farmer to input the data him/herself.

In terms of grassland management, the Teagasc backed Pasturebase is leading the way while ICBF are investing heavily in breeding. Herdwatch, the FRS business in Tipperary, AgriNet and Kingswood are also in the farm management space.

Environment

Environmental sustainability continues to dominate many conversations about agriculture and as a sector AgTech can play a role in reducing the use of pesticides and move from blanket coverage of sprays and fertilisers for example to precision spraying and fertilising.

The Irish business MagGrow is an excellent example of this:

Conventional agricultural pesticide spraying practices can typically result in 70% waste with only 30% of what is actually sprayed reaching its target. This results in chemical and water waste, while increasing levels of environmental pollution.

MagGrow has developed a pioneering, patented magnetic spraying system that reduces drift by up to 70% and delivers superior coverage by enabling you to spray using finer droplets, a key challenge for conventional spraying systems.

Imaging and sensors will change how we farm. This example is from the 2016 at the Innov-Agri Show in Paris of a machine using an image processing algorithm to spot spray weeds. This will become part of mainstream agriculture and will save farmers money as well as reflecting well on sector from an environmental perspective.