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High-Tech Tools Help Irish Dairy Farmers Produce More Milk

Jan 2, 2015
Originally published on February 29, 2016 5:08 pm
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This new year will usher in huge changes to the global dairy industry. Thirty years ago, Europe put strict quotas on milk production. Now those quotas are disappearing. And that is likely to have a massive effect on Ireland, which exports dairy products around the world. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports Irish dairy farmers are planning to spring forward with the help of some high-tech tools.

(COW MOOING)

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: When you hear about technology and farms, you sort of think about industrial factory farming. But this is kind of the most picturesque scene I can imagine. There's even a rainbow on the horizon.

(COW MOOING)

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: My name is Michael Griffin. I'm the fourth generation of my family to farm on my family farm.

SHAPIRO: Griffin raises dairy cows in this pastoral corner of southwestern Ireland. In some ways, he's carrying on traditions that have been in place for centuries. In other ways, not. He pulls out his smartphone to show me.

SHAPIRO: I just have to say the wallpaper of your phone is a cow.

GRIFFIN: Yes, she's one of the higher-yielding cows in the herd.

SHAPIRO: Wearable technology is all the rage nowadays. Google Glass, bracelets that monitor your daily exercise - those are for humans. Here in Ireland, wearable technology extends to the cows. In Griffin's herd, each cow wears a bright, blue necklace called the Moo Monitor. The necklaces send data to his phone.

So you're opening up the app.

GRIFFIN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: It says welcome Michael Griffin.

GRIFFIN: Yes, right. Active cows - zero, which I would hope because we're finished our breeding season.

SHAPIRO: The app tells him how much his cows are eating and walking. Today it says one of his cows is less active than usual.

GRIFFIN: And this particular cow was treated for being lame last weekend. So it's flagging that, so...

SHAPIRO: And you know that just from looking - oh, this is that cow?

GRIFFIN: Her activity is down.

SHAPIRO: The man responsible for this technology is Doctor Edmond Harty, CEO of a company called Dairymaster. His corporate headquarters is the only three-story building for miles around here. It looks like a tiny piece of Silicon Valley plopped down in the middle of the Irish countryside.

EDMOND HARTY: A herd of animals is made up of individual animals. And if we are really to get better and to get more efficient, it's going to be about looking after each individual animal on an individual basis. And this is where I see a big change coming in agriculture.

SHAPIRO: Thanks to Dairymaster, Big Brother is watching the cows. And there are pressing business reasons for Irish dairy farmers to make these changes now.

SIMON COVENEY: We are planning to grow the volume of milk production in Ireland by 50 percent in the next five years.

SHAPIRO: Simon Coveney is the Irish minister for agriculture. In the last few months, he has visited China and Saudi Arabia to pitch Irish dairy products. Not so much high-end cheeses or butter, the big business here is baby formula.

COVENEY: About 12 or 13 percent of the world's infant formula is made on this little island.

SHAPIRO: Beyond the business incentive, farmers say new technologies are making them happier. And their herds, too.

PATRICK DWYER: Definitely. I'm 100 percent sure of that. They are giving more milk.

SHAPIRO: And happier cows give more milk?

P. DWYER: Oh, yeah. Definitely.

SHAPIRO: Patrick Dwyer and his wife Nicola just bought a new milking parlor where almost everything is automated. It used to take six hours to milk the herd. It was also dangerous. Cows would sometimes fall, pinning him to the ground. Now it's much safer and the whole process takes less than an hour. Nicola says the new parlor also let her take a weekend vacation with her husband. The last time they did that was eight years ago.

NICOLA DWYER: Simply because we just couldn't let anybody do the milking while we were away because of the safety aspect. So we had to stay and we had to do it ourselves.

SHAPIRO: When they left for the weekend, their two teenage daughters took over. Now, after four generations of men running this place, Nicola says technology may allow her girls to be the next inheritors of this Irish family farm. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.