Comparing a state-of-the-art smartphone with the sizzling sirloin steak on the table in front of you or that chilled glass of milk you are about to enjoy, you would at first assume they have nothing in common.
But for Dr Edmond Harty, CEO of Dairymaster, an enterprising family business 19 kilometres (12 miles) outside the Kerry market town of Tralee, they are very much related. The very same accelerometers we find in the latest phones and tablets have been harnessed by the company’s R&D team to create a world-beating technology that helps farmers find out if the cows in their fields are ready for milking or are fertile and feeling frisky.
“You can’t underestimate the importance of this – the world’s population is growing by about 200,000 people a day and by 2050 it is expected the world will need 70pc more food than it can produce today,” Harty explained.
Welcome to the world of one of Ireland’s most successful indigenous technology companies, which is enjoying global exports with its locally manufactured MooMonitor device, as well as an established range of other farm technologies and equipment that make use of the latest breakthroughs in mobile and nanotechnology.
Dairymaster employs 300 people in Causeway, Co Kerry, in the areas of R&D and high-end manufacturing to produce hi-tech gadgets and equipment for farmers in 40 countries around the world. The company, which began in 1968, has more than 40 patents and its engineers are as obsessed with the latest smartphone, cloud and internet capabilities as you would find in any HQ of tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon or Facebook.
Silicon Valley not required
The company is proof that a world-beating technology company can exist anywhere in Ireland and doesn’t have to be in Silicon Valley.
Dairymaster was formed by Harty’s father Ned to import and install milking machines in the Irish market.
“When my father began in the late 1960s it was at the early stages of the mechanisation of agriculture and by the 1970s we were manufacturing our own milk parlours and by the 1990s we were exporting them, so I grew up in an environment where there was a massive interest in engineering. When I was a lad I was interested in software and electronics long before there was any CoderDojos to help me.”
For Harty, winner of last year’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, exposure to this industrious enterprise and his own love of technology and engineering led him in an inevitable direction.
Harty studied mechanical engineering at UL and joined the family business in 1998 while studying for a PhD in milking performance at UCD.
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.
Tech meets dairy
Harty described the Dairymaster workforce as mostly techies and says it is a shared curiosity about advances in gadgets, engineering and innovation that propels the company in a myriad of new directions, from devices like the MooMonitor to apps that sit on smartphones to large milking parlours, coolers and feeding equipment – all geared to help farmers produce more food.
Explaining the MooMonitor, a device that sits around a cow’s neck and uses accelerometers to tell if the cow is in heat, Harty said: “There are lots of jokes that go around the place about alternative uses for it, but basically in order to produce milk farmers need to be producing calves and that’s why the fertility cycle is so important to milk production. There is a narrow window of opportunity that farmers need to get right.
“Believe it or not, we were inspired by the technologies the military put in torpedoes and rockets to hit targets – the accelerometer technology we take for granted in phones today – to quantify cow behaviour. When the cow is in heat they tend to be more active so we have algorithms built in that watch for changes in behaviour.”
Harty explained that the engineers at Dairymaster began work on the MooMonitor in 2003, long before the first accelerometers appeared in phones. “We 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?”
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.
It is this marriage of engineering with economic reality that inspires the R&D ethos at Dairymaster, resulting in various technologies and products that manage feed distribution to cattle, measure the cattle’s body mass index (BMI) and technologies that measure the quality of milk to ensure it is fit for human consumption.
“We have a view that we want to always be at the front when it comes to technological development in the agriculture business. But we are also realistic, you can be cutting edge as much as you like but that is only important so long as you are making something that is useful to the customer.
“The MooMonitor is a classic example of that; we were able to put a whole team of people focused on nanotechnology, software engineering and computational science together to create a product that has practical use in the farmer’s field.”
Centralising 300 people in Kerry, Dairymaster functions just like a Silicon Valley tech company. “If we want to make something we have the ability to just get it done in one location. It is the conversations that happen in the corridors that turn ideas into reality.”
Growth at Dairymaster
Harty explained that the company has been steadily enjoying double-digit growth. “As a private company we don’t disclose turnover. We like to keep our competitors in the dark in that area. That allows us to get into a market and stay under the radar. Outside of our customer base no one knew who we were until we won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneurship Award last year.
“Staying under the radar has allowed us to enjoy double-digit growth and for the past few years we have surpassed our target of growing turnover over 20pc a year.”
According to Harty, mobile technology is increasingly at the heart of everything Dairymaster produces. “For example, on our milk cooling tanks, where farmers hold the milk until the dairy lorry arrives, we have a lot of mobile integration so if the temperature changes or there’s a power cut, the farmer is informed by text and can take measures to compensate the thermal performance of the tank.”
To make this happen, Dairymaster uses machine-to-machine (M2M) mobile technologies that have yet to emerge in consumer applications, like smart meters for electricity and water.
“Our overriding goal is that everything we produce has to be to be a commercial success – that’s how we get our buzz.”
Harty said that in terms of product development, the company develops products for Ireland and the UK. “It’s important to do it at home first and then we focus on the US and Australia, basically English-speaking countries first.”
The 11-acre site where Dairymaster is located in Kerry co-ordinates live research with various farms in the area, as well as various Teagasc research bases around Ireland. “We work with various research organisations and Teagasc validates the tests.
“As a company we’ve always had a technical focus – it has always been an objective to make a better product. The big changes over the years relate to the agenda I drove in terms of electronics and software and validating the claims we make about what our technology can do.
“That’s what has allowed us to spread our wings internationally and to target new markets. Our aim is to have every customer as a reference,” Harty said.
Looking at the company’s future export potential, Harty pointed to the Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping’s visit to Ireland last year where his 150-strong delegation predominantly visited farms.
“Food supply is going to be a critical issue for the future and nations like China and Russia are deeply interested in boosting food supply. Technology has a huge role to play. Our software can help farmers calculate the right amount of feed to produce the right results. Every extra litre of milk a farmer can produce from a cow is worth 30 cents each day. You will get that kind of response from the cows if you do things properly. Our focus is to make dairy farms more profitable, more enjoyable and more sustainable.
“Technologies like the MooMonitor helps to make farming more sustainable and farmers can use this kind of intelligence to run the farm.
“We see farm sizes increasing and people will need to be able to handle more cows.
“In addition, milk quotas are being finished in the EU and if anything this will mean more volatile milk prices.”
Harty said technologies like the MooMonitor will help farmers become more efficient and ensure they produce the right quantities of milk to make the profit levels they need.
“Some are ready and some are not. The best farmers in the country are ready to go.”
A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 7 April