“While the fundamentals of agriculture and agricultural technology haven’t changed a great deal over the last century, in the coming decades, it is the mass instalment of sensors and sensor-equipped devices at farms big and small the world over — or ‘AgInformatics’, a type of ‘Big Data’ analysis — that may well have the most profound impact on overall agricultural productivity in Ireland since mechanisation,” said Mr Murray.
“Any device that has a sensor can be used to take readings and measurements and provide meaningful, actionable feedback to maximise output and minimise waste, both physical and temporal. Irish farmers... stand only to gain from the AgInformatics and Big Data revolution unfolding here and the world over.”
He cited the use of Big Data analysis to align weather predictions to insurance costs, noting that Monsanto subsidiary Climate Corp offers farmers individualised insurance policies for $40 an acre. Using data from satellite readings, it offers remuneration if forecasts show that a particular day will be too humid or too dry to grow a certain crop.
“A recently launched EU satellite, part of the ‘Copernicus’ programme, aims to offer European farmers highly-detailed insight into crop and forest growth by collecting and analysing enormous amounts of data gathered from space and by measuring stations on terra firma,” he added.
“Smartphone and tablet apps, like Mobile Farm Manager and FarmSight, improve productivity by collating data from historical and real-time data sets, like weather and soil conditions, stored by the host company and from sensors on machines and devices around the farm,” said Mr Murray. “This allows the app to advise on tasks like the best time of day to plant crops, and even the most productive route to plough.”
Agri-food accounts for 10% of Ireland’s employment, and contributes €24bn annually to the economy, with an extra €3.75bn expected to be invested in the sector by 2020. This ambition is also driving greater use of AgInformatics on Irish farms. “It’s just not foreign companies investing in this data revolution,” said Mr Murray. “Irish minds are displaying similar levels of ingenuity. Cork-based Treemetrics, founded in 2005, uses advanced laser-scanning techniques to precisely map out entire forests to the last plant, then Big Data analytics allow foresters to predict a tree’s value before felling, and formulate a cutting plan with the highest yield and minimal waste.”
The Department of Agriculture’s Food Harvest 2020 set ambitious targets for the agri-food industry, including a 50% increase in milk production, a 40% increase in the output value of beef, and 20% increase for sheep.
He noted that all these goals are to be achieved in just six years.
“With these goals inextricably tied to the weather and climate, and efficient use of clement conditions, the adoption of new data analysis strategies could really increase the sector’s chances of achieving them. The potential is limitless,” he said.