Dairy production is one of the oldest agricultural industries on the planet, but today it is arguably one of the most troubled. Despite the world’s unending appetite for dairy products, dairy farmers are facing one of the toughest economic climates in history. As dairies become more efficient and cows are bred to produce more milk, supply skyrockets. This leads to a drop in milk prices making it difficult for dairies to earn the income they need to keep their operations running. The squeeze is impacting organic and grass-fed dairy producers just as much as conventional milk producers as consumer demand has led to an excess supply.
As far as farming operations go, dairies are some of the most input-intensive enterprises, from feed to equipment to veterinary services. As prices dwindle, some dairies have no choice but to shut their barn doors for good. Between 2017 and 2018, Ohio alone lost 172 dairy farms. Dairies, which are typically family-run operations, are forced to weigh the risks of remaining in business with unpredictable milk prices, changing consumer preferences, and low prices for breeding stock and cull cows. Other farmers are cashing out of the milk business due to a lack of reliable labor and the crushing daily hours it takes to run a dairy.
The ruthless financial climate is not just impacting US producers; it’s hitting other major dairy nations like New Zealand and Ireland, too. The European Union has placed price and herd-size controls on member states in an attempt to control an increasing supply that’s caused prices to plummet.
For those who choose to remain in operation without knowing when prices will turn around, the only option is to streamline their businesses in an attempt to boost their bottom lines.
Fortunately, a growing number of dairy tech startups are developing technologies to address some of dairy farmers’ biggest pain points including labor shortages, disease (especially mastitis), herd identification, antibiotic overuse, and performance issues. Major US dairy cooperative and brand Land O’Lakes even launched a dairy-focused startup accelerator in July 2017. These technologies range from data gathering and analytics platform to biotech to robotics.
Dairy Tech Adoption Challenges
Despite the prevalence of technologies for dairy farmers (sampled below), there appear to be two main challenges impacting dairy farmers’ ability and desire to adopt these innovative tools: money and data confusion.
“Not all dairy farmers are willing to spend the money that is required to reinvest in R&D,” Manuel Soares, CEO at California-based dairy farm management tech developer Milc Group told AgFunderNews. “Technology is an expensive process, and the only way companies will invest in it is if they can sell enough product to invest back into the operation.”
Even for farmers who can afford to adopt these dairy technologies, it can be difficult to know what to do with the mountain of data that they yield. And in many instances, farmers are frustrated by data siloing.
“One of the biggest challenges encountered was cow ID. It is really hard to know which cow is in the milking stall at which time because they are all closed-off systems that link back to different sensors. We have been on farms where a cow has four different tracking systems that link back to four different sensors collecting similar data,” Bethany Deshpande, CEO at in-line milk analysis technology developer SomaDetect, told AgFunderNews. SomaDetect recently won the Judge’s Choice Award at FoodBytes! New York.
“That means that a farmer has paid four times for a technology that does the same thing. It’s a disservice.”
A few other challenges that might be impeding dairy tech adoption are a lack of reliable internet in rural areas, some farmers’ preference for old-school notepad and pencil, and a lack of tech support when the technologies breakdown or go haywire.
Although these barriers to dairy tech adoption are not insurmountable, they represent additional pressures on an already suffering industry.
Here is a list of diverse dairy tech startups hoping to solve dairy farmers pain points is the above challenges can be overcome.
This is not an exhaustive list of technologies in each category, but a few samples to show the abundance of new technology in the dairy world. (You can find more in the Mixing Bowl’s Livestock Tech Landscape here.)
Digital Monitoring Technologies
Unsurprisingly, a large category of dairy tech focuses on the most important aspect of any dairy: the cow. Learning more about a how much milk a cow produces, when she will give birth, and how frequently she exhibits signs of illness can help a farmer hone in on his most efficient animals while giving increased attention or consideration to the lower performers. Technologies in this category almost always rely on some type of sensor attached either to the cow or to part of the milking line to collect countless data points.
- Afimilk offers a banquet of technologies for dairy farms from cow monitoring solutions to in-line milk analyzers to herd management tools. The Israeli company has provided dairy-focused technological solutions for 40 years and operates in 50 countries around the world.
- Cainthus is an Irish startup focused on using computer vision and predictive imaging analysis to identify and monitor the health and well-being of dairy livestock.
- Connecterra’s (Holland) Intelligent Dairy Farmers Assistant “Ida” is an artificial intelligence-powered service that uses data collected from dairy cows that are then processed and analyzed by Ida to detect health issues such as mastitis or lameness at least 24 hours before they are critical.
- DairyComp305 by ValleyAg allows producers to track several key points of data for each cow including milk production, reproduction, and calf raising. The user controls the variety of reports and worksheets that can be generated.
- EIO Diagnostics’s FirstLook Mastitis system uses a multispectral sensor installed at the entrance of the milk parlor to capture an image of the udder as the animal enters. Data from those images are processed through machine learning to identify early indicators of infection.
- HerdDogg’s Internet of Herds technology captures health and even location data for dairy cows as well as beef cattle, swine, and small ruminants like sheep and goats.
- MastiLine develops and manufactures sensors and an automated monitoring system to detect the early signs of mastitis. The startup’s sensors enable dairy farmers to detect mastitis at a subclinical level before visible signs of the disease manifest.
- SCR by Allflex has developed a durable all-weather eSense ear tag and SenseTime electronic cow monitoring system that provides farmers with heat detection information, insemination timing guidance, and rumination monitoring for a holistic look at each cow’s health and reproduction.
- Silent Herdsman (UK) developed a neck-collar monitoring system used to detect estrus and health problems in dairy cows. The device, which is currently used in hundreds of dairy farms throughout Europe, is intended to help dairy farmers spend less time visually observing their herd and more time taking proactive steps to treat emerging problems. Afimilk acquired Silent Herdsman in 2016.
Biotechnologies are applied to dairy farming in various ways, not least for healthcare. The biggest scourge on any dairy farm is mastitis. This contagious infection impacts a cow’s udder and can become fatal if not treated in time. The disease, which takes different pathogenic forms, is so common that it hits about one-quarter of any given dairy herd each year. A cow infected with mastitis must be removed from the production line and treated with antibiotics before she can be returned to the milking line; it’s highly infectious, which means one cow could spread the nasty disease to other cows in the herd, seriously reducing the dairy’s overall output.
“If you are screening your heard regularly then you can get cows who are infected off the farm and into a hospital pen within three hours,” Chuck Stormon, president of on-farm mastitis detection company Acumen Detection told AgFunderNews. “The old way of doing this was to run a milk culture, which can take a few days up to a week or two to yield results. There was an initial investment in the system, and we realized that if we eliminate that cost by financing the system, we make it extremely affordable for dairy farmers who can pay as they go.”
Biotech startups are also targeting other common bacterial and viral infections that plague dairy herds using innovative approaches that will hopefully reduce farmers’ dependence on traditional antibiotics, which has led to the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. This category includes other biotechnologies including genetic testing and editing for performance.
- Acumen Detection has developed a rapid on-farm system for detecting mastitis in three hours.
- Advanced Animal Diagnostics develops tools to diagnose livestock disease on the farm. The North Carolina-based company aims to help cut back on the number of antibiotics administered to livestock on farms.
- Akeso Biomedical is developing a new generation of compounds, known as Fe3C, with broad-spectrum activity to fight bacterial infections, and prevent foodborne illnesses. The UK-based company’s pipeline includes antibiotic-free feed additives to improve the health of farm animals and reduce the levels of infection by Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli.
- Avivagen is working to address one of the biggest issues in livestock production today: antibiotics. Avivagen’s non-antibiotic, non-hormonal OxC-beta platform is a new alternative to growth-promoting antibiotics that can be provided to animals in a feed supplement.
- EpiBiome offers bacteriophages therapy, a macromolecular bacterial virus with a bullish disposition that seeks out and destroys specific strains of bacteria. Its platform can produce phage cocktails to treat mastitis in cows.
- Prosper Animal Health is working on next generation vaccines for bacterial and viral diseases in cattle as well as other livestock species. It claims that its oil-free based vaccines are the next frontier of animal vaccines, providing a faster, higher level and longer lasting immune response and disease protection to ensure healthier, more productive, and better-managed animals.
- Recombinetics is a company engaged in applying gene-editing techniques to food animals. It’s agriculture division, Acceligen, is aiming to provide precision breeding solutions for animal health, animal welfare, and sustainability.
- TL Biolabs offers $15 genomic tests for beef and dairy cattle, and the software needed to analyze the results. The company’s microarray testing is designed to help farmers predict every heritable trait in cattle from birth— including health, productivity, and fertility. This can enable them to make more data-driven breeding and farm management decisions, such as which calves to keep or sell, and which bulls to breed with which cows.
- ViroVet, which participated in FoodBytes! London’s 2018 event, is working on new technologies for the control of viral diseases in livestock. Its vaccines are thermostable which means farmers don’t have to keep them at a cold temperature in order for them to remain potent, which can be a logistical nightmare on some farms.
One of the most promising technologies for the dairy industry is robotics, which addresses a lack of reliable and skilled labor in the industry. Operating a dairy farm is a full-time endeavor that requires daily, year-round labor, making it tough for some farmers to secure enough family time. Many companies have already commercialized robotic devices for milking and feeding, but there are plenty of opportunities to automate other aspects of the production chain.
“I think that tech adoption in dairy will continue to grow especially as labor becomes a bigger issue for dairy farms. There is limited labor due to issues with a lack of interest from the general population and immigration regulation,” Dr. Julio Giordano, a dairy researcher at Cornell University’s Department of Animal Science, told AgFunderNews. “ You will not necessarily replace human labor completely, but in many cases, it will enhance humans and change what we have to do on farms regarding decision making. Automation will play a big role in dairy management in the near future for things like heat detection, sorting gates, and milking.”
Although there is an abundance of robotics in dairy, many producers are wary of making the switch and the headaches that come with teaching the employees – cows included – how to use the new system. This means that the startups with the best customer support and on-boarding programs will probably fare the best.
- Boumatic is an international company that offers robotic milking technologies equipped like milking robots and spraying robots that are designed to prevent milking infections using vision programming technology.
- Dairymaster produces automated “milking parlors” that help move cows in and out of the milking stalls safely and efficiently, and record data on the facility, but do not include robotic milking. The startup is based in Ireland.
- DeLaval offers a wide range of integrated robotics solutions for the dairy industry with a focus on seamless integration. Their robots also collect information on cow health.
- FutureCow’s DairyAir Direct Drive scrubber is designed to reduce prep time and labor in cleaning rotary or parlor milking systems between milkings.
- Lely has been a major player in crafting robots for dairy including everything from milking devices to automated brushes that help cows scratch those hard-to-reach itches.
- Pearson Milking Technologies is an Irish company manufacturing robotic milking equipment that uses “laser and scanning technologies.”
- Pharm Robotics is developing a robot to automate dairy cow vaccinations and fertility shots through the Sprint Accelerator program, which is sponsored in part by Dairy Farmers of America.
Whole Farm Management Technologies
“We were founded based on a weakness that we saw in existing technologies. Companies create technologies that gather a lot of data, but the problem is that the industry doesn’t know what to do with the data. They can’t interpret it,” Soares at Milc Group explains. “Also, there isn’t a system out there that allows you to bring all of your data together, like herd management, people management and all of the data that you capture from the milking process. That’s why we are working to create a platform called ONE with different modules.”
- BoviSync’s cloud-based SaaS product allows dairy farmers to monitor protocols, manage herd records to find areas of improvement, and to track successes in overcoming problem areas.
- DairyLive helps farmers analyze individual livestock data like breed, vaccinations, and weight to measure each cow against the herd average. It also allows the farmer to schedule key events like breeding and pregnancy checks.
- DairyQuest allows producers to schedule regular checkups for each cow and to generate comprehensive reports to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. It features customizable data screens that allow farmers to control which data points they see.
- Herd Detective’s platform analyzes different herd managing systems to help farmers pinpoint the most effective strategy that will yield the highest profits.
- Milc Group is developing cloud-based tools to improve whole farm management including everything from equipment maintenance to finances. The platform includes a customizable learning management system that dairies can use to onboard new employees.
- My Dairy Dashboard harnesses multiple data sets on a dairy farm and provides viewers with a visual farm so farmers and advisors can act faster. The system combines herd and feed software, weather data, and more and is accessible from any mobile device.
- Nedap’s CowControl is an all-in-one dairy farm management and herd monitoring system that tracks labor efficiency, reproduction, cow health, and management.
- Stellapps offers a full stack digital platform in India, where the dairy industry is massive, to optimize the entire dairy supply chain, including milk production, procurement, and cold chain logistics through the deployment of 26 different types of sensors, automation, and machine learning. The Gates Foundation is an investor.
Dairy cattle have high nutritional requirements due to the gallons of milk that they produce on a regular basis. A large percentage of crops produced in the US go to animal feed. This group of dairy tech startups is working on improving cattle feed in a variety of ways, including everything from a software platform that provides farmers with better insight about what and how much their herd is eating to enhanced enzymes within corn kernels.
- Agrivida’s Grainzyme technology produces beneficial enzymes inside a kernel of corn such as phytase, glucanase, and other enzymes that optimize nutritional performance, enabling livestock to excrete less phosphorus, nitrogen, and undigested carbohydrates into the environment.
- Ascus created a livestock diet ingredient containing beneficial, live microbes that originate in and are native to the target species. Endomicrobial feed supplements are added to the ration to improve gastrointestinal health and function.
- Biofeed has developed different probiotics and yeast-based products that work to promote the wellbeing of animals all derived from fermentation processes.
- Consumer Physics partnered with Cargill Animal Nutrition over a new technology platform for US dairy producers called Reveal. Reveal combines Consumer Physics’ SCiO, a small handheld Near-Infrared (NIR) spectrometer, with Cargill’s forage lab analysis platform, to provide dairy farmers with real-time analysis of their corn silage, haylage and dry hay on the farm to understand its content.
- Dairy Margin Tracker’s Feed Tool is a web-based smartphone app that provides farmers with information about rations, dry matter intake, and overall feed usage. It aims to give farmers a digital feed monitoring solution without having to purchase expensive hardware or software.
- DeLaval’s Auto Calf Feeder allows dairies to customize milk feeding for each calf while its CalfCloud program provides remote access to each calf’s feeding pattern from a smartphone or tablet.
A few dairy tech startups are innovating for unique aspects of the dairy production system, such as manure management. Slurry Solver has developed a floating raft of sorts that stays on the surface of the slurry in the tank allowing the solids to fall while capturing the methane as it rises. What used to be a simple tank can effectively be retrofitted into an anaerobic digester, allowing the farmer to capture the methane biogas for use. Similarly, Livestock Water Recycling’s First Wave System separates manure solids from liquids creating a solid fertilizer component.
Another company is developing solutions to help dairy farmers boost their knowledge with the limited downtime that they have between milking, maintenance, and managing the entire farm. Dairy AdvanCE is an online continuing education resource that allows farmers and allied industry members to prove they are continually improving and learning as dairy professionals. It offers vetted training from trusted third-party educators and allows participants to track and manage their classes through an online dashboard. Dairy AdvanCE is free for dairy farm owners, farm managers, and on-farm employees.
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