Wednesday, 1 July 2015

How big data can help beef and sheep producers

AHDB Beef & Lamb assistant regional manager Joseph Keating is helping to coordinate a project in the livestock industry to create a comprehensive data exchange. As our guest blogger this week, he talks about how it could work and the wider role “big data” can play in the industry.

We’re all aware of the vast amount of information generated throughout the supply chain, ranging from animal identification to abattoir grades, and everything in been between. I’ve seen the huge benefits data can have for individual farm businesses. However, as an industry, we have been poor at maximising the potential of this information.

Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a Copa-Cogeca meeting on Big Data for Farmers and Cooperatives. I was amazed by the smart technology being used by farmers and cooperatives across Europe.

In the Netherlands, breeding company CRV believes that in order to give the best advice and service to its customers, and to extract the full potential from the data, it needs to share data with other systems. Farmers define what data can be shared and the CRV database connects with a number of different systems. For example, a monitor on a cow’s neck can detect heat. This sends a message to the database and the most appropriate AI bull is automatically selected. The system can even send a technician out to administrate the straw.

The conference had a number of other examples from across the EU, but the core principle common to all is the need for collaboration and data exchange.

I think most would broadly agree that, to get the maximum benefit, data needs to be shared. This is a simple principle, but not always easy in practice. Data ownership and privacy is an important issue. This shouldn’t, though, be seen as a reason to do nothing. Like any other industry, if we want to move forward, we need access to accurate, timely and relevant information. 

One telling point from the conference was the general lack of examples of practical data use from the beef and sheep sector. Unfortunately, we are the poor relation when it comes to sharing and using industry-generated data. In a bid to change this, AHDB has been looking at ways to address some of the problems around utilisation of data within the sector. In conjunction with a wider industry steering group, we submitted a successful bid to the Agri-Tech Catalyst fund to support the development of a pilot system. This system could effectively work as a search engine to facilitate data exchange between Government, industry and private databases.
The livestock industry data exchange hub could also, for the first time, provide the cattle industry with a facility to underpin risk-based trading for economically important diseases, such bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD) and Johnes disease. If the pilot is successful and taken forward by the industry, the capabilities are numerous and not just limited to animal health.

So, while, to some outside observers, it may still seem as if agriculture is an industry stuck in the past, it is increasingly looking to more high tech solutions – and big data in particular – to drive efficiency and help inform business decisions.

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