OFC19: How data saved one farmer’s milk cheque during the 2018 drought

The amount of data generated by farms is growing exponentially. And with that comes vast opportunities for farmers to cash in on the value of information, one agri-tech firm told delegates at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference.

Andy Venables, a dairy farmer from Cheshire, and a guest speaker at the Map of Ag fringe event, explained how simply collecting isolated sets of information is no longer enough for business management.

He explained some of the myriads of analytics tools he uses to optimise his dairy operation – and how it saved him from losing yield – and money off his milk cheque – during the summer drought.

Andy and his family milk around 300 cows on a 500ac Hills Green Farm in a year-round calving system.

They sell around 2.3 million litres annually to Muller on a Co-op contract.

“I was really passionate about the family farming business and looking at how we can grow and change that. Really digging into data to find small marginal gains has made a big difference to our business,” he said.

“What I am trying to do is to embrace technology and use it to make the business more efficient.

“However, data is nothing without good interpretation and analysis. It is all about generating value and informing better decision making.”

For example, Andy uses Map of Ag software to link up his milk yield, which is recorded individually to each cow using ID collars, with grass growth rates so he can plan his grazing. Interestingly, grass growth on the farm is measured using satellite technology.

He also uses boluses in all of the animals so he can track individual cow health.

Handling the summer drought

The idea is that through the right analysis, the business can move from reacting to its data towards predictive analysis and using incoming data to react to future potential issues.

“I felt that our farm had a data problem – not through the shortage of data but that we had so much data in so many shapes sizes and guises; whether that be paper, an app or an email.

“There was so much duplication across all these different sources and nothing talked to each other. And what farmer wants to spend time copying and pasting data to create pivot tables?

We can connect now right through to the milk processor and retailer – which gives us a big advantage in the supply chain.

Just a few months ago, the information and analysis came into its own during the record-breaking summer drought.

The data was able to show exactly when the lack of grass growth would cause the herd’s milk yield to fall below the processor’s accepted variable on forecasted production (around 7.5%).

As a result, it allowed Venables to respond accordingly by introducing buffer feeding in time to avoid a penalty on his milk cheque.

Jim Williams, head of market research at Map of Ag, who also spoke at the conference fringe event this week, explained that by sharing their data, farmers can generate more value than by simply looking at their data alone.

“True value is generated when data from multiple sources are layered together,” he said.

“Most farmers would struggle to organise this by themselves, which gave Map of Ag the idea to create a farmer-owned entity which will facilitate data sharing in an independent and secure environment, returning a significant portion of the value generated back to the farmers who contributed their data, either as cash or redeemable vouchers.”

‘The next frontier’

James Husband, a veterinary consultant at the firm said the data could be used by the likes of processors and retailers to manage pricing, quality or supply and demand in the milk sector, for instance.

However, with great power always comes great responsibility and many in the industry still have questions about data security and Map of Ag answers this issue confidently.

“We follow a concept of data control whereby farmers retain control over what happens to their data at all times”, said Jim Williams. “Secure data is part of our business model, so we take it extremely seriously.”

Clive Blacker, the firm’s recently appointed head of business development in EMEA countries said he sees the use of data as “the next big frontier” in global agriculture.

Data and analytics will change how we farm our land. It is truly transformational – especially when we can share data and information.

‘Sitting at your fingertips’

Venables closed out the discussion by pointing out that technology is there for farmers to use to make their lives easier, to make farming operations more profitable and to help protect the soil and environment farmers are entrusted to look after.

“As farmers, we have to get to grips with these new technologies and learn how to make better decisions as a result,” he said.

“The best way to cope with everything from the forage shortages as we had last spring, to this coming Spring’s uncertainties surrounding Brexit, is to collect and use data and analytics. It is, after all, sitting at our fingertips. We just have to use it.”