The Big Interview: Dr Edmond Harty of Dairymaster

Dairymaster, an Irish company based in Causeway, Co Kerry, is one of the leading diary innovation and technology companies in the world. Its CEO and technical director is Dr Edmond Harty, who was Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 and represented Ireland at the European awards in Monte Carlo this year.

AgriLand caught up with Dr Harty earlier this year and talked all things dairy and innovation. Here is a recap.

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In Ireland we have the best farmers in the world, but there just isn’t enough of them’

‘If we look forward as a country we should be upping the annual yield of cows’

‘With dairy post-Quota, efficiency and cost of production will be key to survive milk price volatility’ 

Dairymaster is on top of its game, employing 300 people and it is pioneering breath-taking farming research. Currently it has more than 40 patents filed as a result of work on product development with devices ranging from vacuum regulators and electronic milk metering to state-of-the-art animal feeding systems. Its engineers are as obsessed with the latest smartphone, cloud and internet capabilities as you would find in any base of tech giants such as Apple or Facebook.

AgriLand met with Dr Harty and his team and discussed diary technology, post-quota efficiencies and what’s next.

Main market
“Our main market is the areas of Germany, Holland, Central Europe, Australia, New Zealand. We have customers from all over the world, from Japan to Russia. In central Europe we are very strong,” explained Dr Harty matter-of-factly.

Dairymaster was formed by Harty’s father Ned to import and install milking machines in the Irish market in 1968. For Harty, exposure to this industrious enterprise from a young age and his own love of technology, engineering and farming led him in an inevitable direction.

He studied mechanical engineering at University of Limerick and joined the family business in 1998 while studying for a PhD in milking performance at University College of Dublin. His research was to have a pivotal effect on Dairymaster’s future direction. Today the largest milking parlour produced by Dairymaster can produce up to 200,000 litres a day – enough milk for half a million people. It is based in Kerry and has two key plants in the UK and the US.

Aim
Dairymaster’s aim is to make a better product to make diary farming more profitable, enjoyable and sustainable. ”That is our customer values. Can you do something to allow somebody to make more money, make life easier, make farms sustainable. That it continues on into the future for generations. That is what we do.”

It has five key product areas: milking parlours, feeding equipment, milk cooling, automatic scrapers, heat detections and state-of-the-art technology that seamlessly connects everything on one platform.

“All activities are integrated and that makes us different. It’s like having lots of little companies, but then a bigger one, the technology, over it, is how I would describe it,” said Harty. ”Historically people have been saving, ‘Gosh you should be outsourcing that stuff.’ But we have the capabilities and the know-how in the company. All circuit boards are done in Kerry and that allows us to do things quicker and better.”

Focus
Dairymaster’s focus is primarily dairy. ”We could be selling loads of stuff for all sectors here there and everywhere but you lose your focus. The customer we have. We know that customer. We know what it is they want. We understand them. We all work well together that is why we are not chasing other stuff.”

What makes Dairymaster different? ”Why is it that we can sell into all these different markets? What makes us different is an interesting question. It is down to performance. Unless we can do something better that our competitors there is no reason our customers will come back to us, it’s as simple as that. ”There are studies shown that Dairymaster milks cows better, that we typically milk each cow a minute quicker. And the way we milk is more natural…A major factor that comes into this is design and that is one of the things we focused hugely around.”

Animal trials
“One of the big problems with milking and animal trials is repeated ability,” he explained. “So imagine if I said I was going to measure the width of the table. If I measure it five times I should get the same answer and if we all measure it we should get the same answer. Okay but in animal trials there are different cows, different variations, different flows. In order to do that animal studies is a big group of cows versus a big group of cows. The problem is you are comparing four things at times at most, a big long process.”

The whole technology process Dairymaster has developed to measure this, is now part of international standards for testing milking equipment. Dr Harty himself is a member of the International Standards Organisation and the International Dairy Federation expert groups on milking ,which are the foremost scientific groups in this area globally.

“The same goes to when you go to buy a car, you look at the back page of your cow booklet and it says this goes to 0 to 100km in a set time, this is our same performance measure for milking…It was a major part of my PHD and up until six years ago there was no performance measurements for milking whatsoever.”

The main advantage of using this technology rather than milking time trials is time. ”Where it has maybe taken you weeks, month, years even to figure out, you can now start comparing designs immediately. You can evaluate the performance of a guy’s existing plant and you can say based on what we now know you can improve your production by doing this,”he explained.

“It’s similar to measuring the affects of heart disease. You can say, feed these people chips and the other crowd salad. Wait 20 years and have a trial. So that is one way you could do it. The other way is that you can do it is an ECG so you can measure what is happening in real-time. That is the difference. It is a big change.”

Challenges
Dr Harty acknowledges that when it enters a new market, some farmers are cautious. ”When you go into a new market in particular, a guy says he doesn’t know whether to believe you or not. ’Are you spinning me a story or is this for real.’ And as I say the proof is in the pudding. How do you show a guy this? Very often in different markets we do conversions of existing plans and we give them milking characteristics, solutions and then they get the advantages.”

What market is most technically advanced?
“Germany, Holland and the US,” Dr Harty said. Where does Ireland rank? ”It depends on the farm. As I say I believe in Ireland we have the best farmers in the world, but there just isn’t enough of them. If we look forward, to me I think as a country we should be upping the annual yield of cows first of all.

“Here in Dairymaster for example you want people to be as productive as possible. The exact same applies in the case for a cow. Why not. It is an industrial process at the end of the day. You might not want to call it that, but in comes raw materials and out comes finished products which is milk.”

Post-Quota
In terms of Ireland’s dairy industry post-quota, Dr Harty firmly believes there is going to be more volatility in market prices. ”When we go to the post milk quota situation, there is more volatility. If there is volatility, how do you deal with it? It is going to be through efficiency. So if you have a high price for milk at one stage and a low price at another stage in order to survive is efficiency and your cost of production.”

He said farmers should not get totally focused on cost. “It’s not about margin, it’s margin by volume. So margin is one element and some people are focusing on margin, that’s grinding a quota scenario to be honest. But actually it’s margin by production. So it’s margin by output on any particular farm is what is going to be important. And technology is a key for that.”

In terms of productivity he said genetics, breeding and cross-breeding is key. So too is milking times. ”Do you milk a cow once a day, three times a day, twice a day? If you look at the trials, twice a day is the way to go. Once a day thing is fair enough but I think it is for low production. Three times a day is for super high production cows. If you go to super high production cows you have more health issues. It’s like the extremes of anything. I see the average yield per cow go up. I see the output per farm go up and technology will have a big role to play whether that be in milking, feeding, fertility or whatever.”

Dr Harty referred to key technological advances recently rolled out by the Department of Agriculture in January earlier this year. ”Since the 1 January this year, as part of your official tag from the Department you can get an electronic tag for the grand prize of a €1 extra.

“We were the first to use ear tags identification of cows back in 1993 in milking, the international national standard began in 1996. That’s 20 years ago now. As a result of that, that puts us a mile ahead. So that means that any farmer who has bought a Dairymaster parlour, can use his ear tag that he gets off the Department. The implication of a that cost, a euro verses an identification collar that costs €60 to €70. There is a huge difference. You take a 100 herd you are talking about €100 euros verses €6,000 to €7,000.

“To me, this technology is similar to a barcode on a package of biscuits. Track everything and key its efficiency.” Should the Department make it compulsory? According to Dr Harty, it had money last time for the last identification system to go electronic but it is his view that it was probably a political decision.

“You had a lot of people against it, people thinking people can see these things from space and see how many cows I have.  It was a misunderstanding and it was a long time ago now. Whereas now the reason they did not was because of the EU mandate…With dairy cows in particular there is a whole lot of things you could start to do once you have each of the cows electronically tagged in terms of production and seperating cows, a whole load of things you could do.”

He is urging farmers to take up electronic tagging. ”If you go back to the supermarket example where yo don’t have a barcode at the checkout, imagine how long you will be waiting in the queue. That is something that we should bear in mind as a country.

Dr Harty said electronic identification would streamline an entire farm, from market improvements to farms to a whole lot of things. ”In terms of testing, when the animal is handled, it’s unbelievebale. If we look forward that is where we need to be. You can imagine all the paperwork that can be limited, all the processes, all the forms, it’s huge. This is an enabler for that. The big thing is farmers don’t know that is how much it costs them.”

Feeding
Precision feeding is another crucial component, said Dr Harty. ”If you look at the Irish context and to me in order to increase production you are going to have to feed more to cows very simply. However feed is one of the largest input in the farm. It’s costly and you have to have a return on investment. To me the future of feeding for the Irish context would be still based on feed of grass. The big question if you look at last year with the feed and it’s crap what do you do? You look at the variation within herds, the heaviest cow is probably twice the weight as the lightest. obviously their nutritional requirements were completely different in terms of the energy requirements. what people are doing is that they are either flat feeding cows grass and let them eat what they want. But you should actually tweak it to the individual cow.”

Precision feeding becomes more vital when a cow is in calf and the immediate 15 days after. ”It’s a high-alert time. The vast majority of stuff happens within the first 15 days of calving, such as metabolic diseases, and it is all related to nutritional needs.

“You can take each cow in the herd and precision feed. Use factors such as days to calving, body weight, health and status conditions. Come up with a feed camera for each cow. You know each cow and it’s connected to your mobile phone. You know that the cow is coming and getting the stuff she is suppose to be getting.”

Without technology Dr Harty said a big problem for farmers is you can be producing all the stuff but you can’t actually prove the cow is getting it.”

Is Dairymaster considering apply its technology to other areas of farming?
“It could be used in others. We could but it’s not our focus. We are looking at dairy specifically. It does have relevance with beef farming and it depends on how that sector does going forward. The possibilities are there, in term of precision farming.

“So you look at texture, colour and that type of stuff. What is the consumer looking for? You take markets such as Italy, they are not jumping for the meat being so red they want whiter and all that type of stuff, that is where I think feeding technologies come in.”

MooMonitor
Explaining the MooMonitor, a device that sits around a cow’s neck and uses accelerometers to tell if the cow is in heat, Dr Harty said: “It is very easy to use. It shows when cows are expected to come into heat and so on. You can look up the cycle patterns. You can also get hourly measurements of what exactly is happening. This allows you to know when is the best time to breed a particular cow, time of breeding effects conception rate. You can detect more silent heat, you can detect more silent problems such as a cystic cow, more herd information.

“The idea is that you can deal with problems and problem cows sooner. usually most of these things are easy enough to deal with, what happens in a lot of cases is that these cows are cows that culled.”

Dairymaster began work on the MooMonitor in 2003, long before the first accelerometers appeared in phones. It did research in nanotechnology, as well as economics. ”Did you know that if a cow has been in heat but not impregnated the economic cost to the farmer is €250 per cow? Nobody drives around the place and drops 250 euros out of the tractor. That is the economic cost,” he stressed.

In the US, for example, Dairymaster’s fertility-monitoring systems are installed in 22 states and are used to manage herds of between 80 and 3,000 cows.

Are Irish farmers in particular adaptable to all this information and technology?
“It all depends, some yes and some no. Some are happy doing what they always did. The biggest issue is awareness. Most people would not believe, and if you go back to the Teagasc figures, actually missing a heat costs €250 euros. For each cow for each heat, a heat every three weeks, that is a huge yearly amount. It’s a absolute massive amount of money.

“There was a big US study where it found 70 per cent of heats occur at night time, 30 of those were for less than eight hours and 15 per cent for less than four hours. These are all the cows that are being missed on farms. And if you think about that, it’s money you are losing, it’s big.”

And is it to get farmers to understand that? ”Educating farmers, older farmers who are not IT literate. With the systems they go from being non-IT to understanding it and using it. It is a huge educational train.”

It is this marriage of engineering with economic reality that inspires the research and development ethos at Dairymaster. Some of the largest animal breeding engineer companies in the world have Dairymaster’s products.

Big opportunity for co-op link in
Another area of its innovation is real-time milk tankers. Dr Harty compared the milk tank in the farm to a bank safe.

“What the tank has to do is mind the farmers produce and that is what he gets paid at the end of the day. So you want to store it in the best possible conditions for the longest length of time.” He said there is a big opportunity to link-in milk tanker technologies with co-ops in terms of reducing transport and production costs, and in terms of milk quality and efficiency.

“But you need enough tanks out there that has this type of stuff. If you imagine you know the level of milk in the tank. You know when collection is necessary when it’s not. You could do a whole load of stuff around that. It’s an ideal job for a computer to be figuring out rather than scheduling the transport routes.”

People are processes are the key elements of Dairymaster and building capability. “We have the capability to do all this stuff to do it all here in Kerry. By doing it all here you have better communication. The more you do the more you can do. If we development mobile connectivity for one product we can apply it across the board.”

Looking at the company’s future export potential, Dr Harty pointed to the Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping’s visit to Ireland last year where his 150-strong delegation predominantly visited farms.

For Dairymaster, its ethos is clearly anything and everything is possible.

Main: Pictured Rosemarie Sheehy, Deirdre Brosnan and Dr Edmond Harty, Electronic & Software Development Department, reviewing the schematics for one of Dairymaster’s next generation electronic designs

 

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