Scientists using ‘dairy drones’ to milk more value from Irish farms

4 Aug 2022

Image: Brent Barbano/Sharegrid

Researchers aim to make a predictive model to help farmers determine the best areas to let their cows graze, to improve dairy production and promote the wellbeing of cattle.

Irish scientists are testing a combination of ‘dairy drones’ and AI to help farmers decide where their cows should graze.

Researchers at Teagasc, University College Dublin and Dublin City University are working together to produce predictive data on the yield and composition of grass growth on pastures. The project is being funded by the Science Foundation Ireland agritech research centre VistaMilk.

Pasture management is currently a labour-intensive practice, as farmers have to constantly walk their fields monitoring grass growth, yield, composition and grazing suitability.

This is according to senior Teagasc research officer Deirdre Hennessy, who said the process is very time consuming.

“They must determine when there are adequate quantities available to feed their animals while making sure they avoid having too much grass, leading to waste and poor quality or potentially under grazing,” Hennessy added.

The project is testing new image analysing, machine learning models based on photos captured by drones and static cameras. These are being compared against physical and lab-based observations of grass growth.

The researchers said that to date, the predictive models they have developed based on simple photographs show a 95pc accuracy rate when compared to physical observations.

They believe a predictive model would help farmers determine the best time and areas to let their cows graze, which can improve dairy production and promote the wellbeing of cattle.

“Image analysing, machine learning algorithms will work with pictures captured by drones – and even satellites in the future,” Hennessy said. “The potential of what we can do in will only be limited by our imaginations.”

Thousands of Irish farmers are using a grassland management app called PastureBase Ireland to input their physical observations of grass growth and get results by the time they are finished walking their land.

Hennessy said the “ultimate goal” of the project is to create an app that combines physical observations, weather predictive models and automated grass imaging to save time and money for farmers.

“While we are not there quite yet, the future is just around the corner,” she added.

VistaMilk said Ireland’s dairy industry supports 60,000 jobs and contributes an estimated €5bn to the economy annually.

While concerns have been raised about Ireland’s agriculture emissions, the research centre is looking to create sustainable practices that protect the environment while preserving Ireland’s dairy industry.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic