Anne Keogh is global head of brand for Alltech, a global animal nutrition and health company. At the recent Futurescope conference in Dublin, she discussed how farming is being affected by technological innovations.
“In 10,000 years of agricultural evolution it has been an industry that has been slow to change. But that is about to change with the birth of the digital age and the need to feed a rapidly growing population. There has been a boom in technological innovations that have the ability to transform the food chain and make agriculture more economical and more viable.”
Keogh highlighted eight specific technologies transforming agriculture:
"Think of 3D printing and the first image that comes into your head may be a 3D-printed cute little toy or trinket, but 3D printing in many industries - and definitely in agriculture - has an untapped potential at the moment. What we see coming down the line in the near future is the ability to take, for example, a broken piece of machinery on the farm, and instead of sending it away and losing several weeks of production, the replacement piece could be printed locally and cheaply.
“With the technology being more localised, this will be absolutely transformational. It could also give farmers the opportunity to create their own bespoke types of materials that they might use to change their industry.”
"Of course, robots are very much an established technology – anybody in the agribusiness is aware of robot milkers. But Keogh contends that robots are now moving to a new level. “They are becoming more functionally autonomous, or they can function to a set of guidelines.
"If we look at the livestock industry just as one example of where robots are moving to that next level, we now have herder bots. They have the ability to move cattle in the right direction collectively. There are also robots now mixing the feed on the farm. What the dairy farmers say about these types of technologies is that it is the cows that are now dictating when it is time to be milked,” she said.
"Drones are well known to the public but what is less so is the fact that they have become much cheaper in the last couple of years and at the same time their capabilities have risen hugely. “If we look at it from a crop farmer’s perspective, a drone is like a third eye. During the growing season, farmers can often be unable to make their way through the fields to see how crops are doing – where there are difficult parts of their farms to reach, drones can give them visibility.
“But drones are also delivering information that the human eye cannot see. They are delivering insights on soil and field analysis. They are being used for planting, irrigation and crop health assessment. The breadth of the technology that is available through drones is continuing to grow all the time.”
Sensors are probably one of the most abundant technologies on the farm today. But for Keogh there is much more to come in this area: “As the price drops, they will probably become the No 1 technology that’s distributed across farms. Right now we have sensors that can do soil, air and water analysis and feed that data back into systems. But what we talk about more in our business is wearables.
“Moocall is one of the leaders in livestock wearables in Ireland. Wearable sensors can monitor a number of different data points on an animal. Ultimately those data points are feeding back into animal health and nutrition.
“And if you take aquaculture, we know now that there are sensors out there that can sense when fish are hungry and feed can be deployed at will. That’s saving the aquaculture industry millions of dollars in feed costs.”
Keogh says that “anybody who owns a smartphone is knowingly or unknowingly interacting with AI every single day. So is agriculture. AI in agriculture is taking data from sensors and turning it into information that’s usable back on the farm.
She believes that one of the most exciting areas in AI at the moment is machine vision: “What it’s doing is deploying a 24/7 monitoring system on farms. The farmers do not need to be there – they can monitor remotely all of the time. An Irish company, Cainthus, is leading the way in machine vision and it is currently developing algorithms that can monitor the behaviour of individual animals. That’s transformative for agriculture, to know that you can move from a group system down to individual monitoring systems.”
Keogh says augmented reality is relatively new to agriculture and is still an expensive technology to deploy. “It is useful for decision making in crop production – for example, you can break down your planting plants for your fields or your crops. As another example, it could be used by fertiliser companies who may want to show a farmer how they can use their product in specific areas and the benefits that flow from that.
“VR in agricultural terms is still an expensive technology and not widely deployed. But, right now, VR is being used in educational terms and it is being used across a wide array of industries. Veterinary medicine is using VR to train vets in a virtual space.”
Blockchain is a theoretically incorruptible electronic ledger, and commonly used in cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. But it has other - potentially vital - uses in agriculture. Keogh explains: “Walmart is currently testing a food blockchain across its stores in the US and China. What that means is that if it has a food scare in one store, blockchain gives it the ability to immediately find and trace back that product to its source and pull it from all affected stores. If you consider that one in 10 people are affected by contaminated food every single year, that can have a massive impact.”
Internet of Things
"Finally, linking all of these technologies is the internet of things, which is taking all of the information from the machines and the sensors and disseminating it to various platforms which can make it usable. At Alltech we have a product called InTouch, and it is our IoT platform. What it does is ensure that there is optimal feed on farms through our mixers while at the same time we can monitor and deliver real-time information back to the farmer that ensures consistent product.
"For those who can see the potential of these technologies within agritech, there is tremendous potential for growth. In 2018, we are about to launch the third year of the Pearse-Lyons Accelerator in association with Dogpatch Labs. In the past two years, we have seen companies from all over the world that are very focused on this area."
Author: Anne Keogh, global head of brand for Alltech