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The Internet of Cows: How AgriTech is tearing up the rules of food

9 Dec 2019Technology news
6 minute read

The internet of things (IoT) isn’t just about smart fridges and autonomous cars. It’s also being used in agriculture to help our farmers meet the needs of an exploding global population. Introducing the internet of cows.

In 1980, Irish biochemist, the late Dr. Pearse Lyons set up a scientific animal nutrition business called Alltech in a garage in Kentucky.

He had moved to America in 1977 on a gifted scientist visa, and three years later decided to “take control of his own destiny”.

He began working on applying his yeast fermentation process to animal health and nutrition, having set aside enough to buy groceries for a year for his family: his daughter Aoife Lyons (for whom Alltech was named), and his son Mark (who chose the company’s colour, orange).

Dr Mark Lyons has since taken over the family business as president and chief executive since his father passed away in March of 2018.

The rhythm of small-town and farming life never completely left Dr. Lyons, who woke up at 3:30 am.

All his work was devoted to the ‘ACE principal’, he often said: that it should benefit the Animal, Consumer, and the Environment.

Returning in 2016 to its Irish origins, Alltech launched the Pearse Lyons Accelerator , an ag-tech accelerator based in Dublin’s Digital Docklands.

It is run in association with tech startup hub Dogpatch Labs, inside the eighteenth-century Customs House Quay building nestling on the Liffey.

A four-month programme for late-stage agritech startups, the accelerator has seen 22 startups graduate in its first three years.

Dr. Lyons firmly believed that agriculture has tremendous potential to shape the future of our planet. He was inspired by the greatest challenge the world has seen — to produce enough safe, nutritious food for all, while caring for our animals, and sustaining our land, air and water for future generations.

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Picture credit: All-tech

The maize of AgTech

AgTech is improving, but not a minute too soon.

By 2050, the world will need to find a way to feed two billion more people, without overwhelming the planet.

And agriculture is currently the least-digitised industry in the world, McKinsey says.

AgTech has seen a fourfold growth of investment since 2014, with $2 billion invested in farming tech startups globally in 2018.

But “Uber’s last funding round generated $8 billion”, points out Robert Walker, director of the accelerator and chief executive of Keenan Systems, a feed equipment company Alltech bought in 2016.

Last summer, China’s Alibaba launched an agricultural AI tool called ET Agricultural Brain, aimed at boosting crop yields for farmers in the world’s biggest country.

With farms facing labour shortages, especially in Britain, robot harvesters are developing rapidly—but they’re still some way from widespread commercial application, says Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East.

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Picture credit: All-tech

Tech to connect to udders

One of the most recent startups to graduate from Dublin’s AgTech incubator is – based in Carlow, and headed by founders Martin Minchin and Conan Condon.

It’s a cloud-based application which uses machine learning to process daily milk production and feeding data to tweak cows’ rations, in real time.

Milk yields increased by 1.75 kg per cow per day, in 1,000 UK and French herds which used an earlier version of the system.

The two founders presented their results at Alltech’s annual One conference in Lexington in May, after an opening speech from adventurer Bear Grylls – who lived in Donaghadee, County Down until the age of four.

InTouchGo has been using a Managed Internet of Things (IoT) Connectivity Platform from Vodafone to let multiple devices share information without a need for human intervention.

“In terms of partners you couldn’t ask for much better, I suppose,” says Mr Condon.

He says he rang his Vodafone account manager , “and said, do you have any solution that would allow us to bring data from off the farms to the cloud, globally?”

“And he said, let me make a call, and within four weeks we signed a contract,” he says.

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Picture credit: All-tech

Milking machine learning

An earlier version told farmers how to adjust their cows’ diet. The new version is automated.

“They are busy people,” Mr Condon says about dairy farmers.

“Things can go wrong quickly on farms: they don’t have time to be analysing data, and pulling out the insights,” he says.

Farmers might be overfeeding their cows, or mixing too much protein into their food, says Mr Condon.

InTouchGo is “going to be disruptive, but also drive profitability for the farmer,” he says.

Making herd management more automated means more younger people might consider farming, knowing they may not always be “tied to being at home at 7am and 5pm.”

“The average age of people in the UK and Irish farming industry is 58, he says. “A big problem is succession, and finding someone in a highly educated, professional society willing to take on a family farm,” says Mr Condon.

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Picture credit: All-tech

What’s the buzz

They may be at the opposite end of the farm animal scale, but a third of the food we eat depends on insect pollinators, says Dr Fiona Edwards Murphy, chief executive of Cork-based ApisProtect.

There are 91 million managed beehives worldwide, but many countries are reporting annual hive losses of 30% or higher, she says.

So she created a tiny IoT device to sit inside beehives and monitor their health.

Machine learning algorithms in the cloud crunch the data and send beekeepers specific insights and recommendations for particular hives, in real-time.

And warn them if a hive needs immediate attention.

ApisProtect is now monitoring 20 million honeybees across the US and Europe.

The idea came out of her doctorate research, where in 2012 she was using wireless systems to research honeybee hives, she says.

At the same time, beekeepers in America were struck by an unexplained colony collapse disorder.

Scientists haven’t yet identified the cause of the collapses, though there are hypotheses including pesticides, mite infections, and changing beekeeping practices.

“Beekeepers started contacting me constantly, asking can I have sensors – I want them in my beehive, can I buy them off you?” she says.

So when she completed her PhD at University College Cork, she decided to create a commercially scalable startup that would increase hives’ productivity and reduce losses.

The device is a single unit with five sensors on board, providing a picture of the beehive’s temperature, humidity, sound, carbon dioxide, and acceleration.

There are “thousands of different things a beekeeper can do” if alerted a beehive is in trouble, including just shifting an overheating beehive into a shady place and opening its vents.

One challenge she has had to overcome is keeping power consumption low, since the hive monitors are battery powered.

She compares instant data on your mobile with “putting on a bee-suit when it is 35 degrees and driving 45 minutes to a hive.”

Dr Edwards Murphy calls honeybees “our most important insect ally”.

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Picture credit: All-tech

The Silicon Prairie and the Farmer in the Dell or Mac

Farming exists largely in the developed world because it’s propped up with government subsidies, like the $25 billion the US pays its farmers each year.

But even so it is a business of tight margins.

Grapes bring in $6 of profit each acre, and are considered a high profit crop.

AgTech startups, like InTouchGo and ApisProtect, and helpful bits of the ecosystem like Alltech’s Pearse Lyons Accelerator, hold out the promise of saving agriculture by disrupting it, and helping the planet feed the 9.8 billion people who will live on it by 2050.

For tech developers, it’s hard really to think of any more vital field.

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