Whether it be single-cow farms in India or massive commercial dairies in the US, the dairy industry is under pressure in light of changing market forces and consumer preferences.
In 2014, India’s dairy industry grew to be larger than that of the rest of the world combined and the country has been the world’s largest dairy producer since 1997. Much of this production is made up of smallholder farmers, a recent ban on selling cows for slaughter, since the Hindi majority of the country gives the animals sacred status, means that dairy farmers are less likely to expand their herds since there is no market for cows that can no longer produce milk. Further, as the aggregators of the country’s small-holder output modernize, they are looking for higher levels of quality, transparency, and consistency in their supply chains.
In Europe, where the European Union exerts price and herd-size controls over member states, prices are predicted to drop further due to a glut in supply. Brussels has reportedly been buying up powdered milk in massive quantities to keep prices stable, but farmers fear that when they can stockpile no more, they will sell it back to the market causing a further price drops.
In many developed markets, consumer tastes for both dairy alternatives, but also grass-fed dairy has segmented the market and made it more difficult for producers at both the high and low end of the price spectrum to find consistent buyers.
In the US, falling prices and changing consumer tastes have caused an almost epidemic level of strain on the dairy industry – especially smaller operations. Even in premium products like organic milk, a glut in supply has led some organic dairy farmers to have trouble finding an organic buyer for their milk, forcing them to sell at the conventional price despite the increased cost of production.
Low milk prices made news recently when a New York state dairy coop included suicide prevention information in their monthly newsletter. Staff at a Cornell University-based farmer support hotline FarmNet told the CNHI News Service that financial stressors are a common reason that farmers call in. Further, A 2016 US Centers for Disease Control study revealed that agricultural workers commit suicide more than any other profession in the US.
Technology can’t solve all of these issues. But even a quick glance at the state of the dairy industry around the world suggests that dairy farms are under intense pressure to operate more efficiently than ever.
From sensors and software to biotechnology, these nine agtech startups are working to improve safety and efficiency on the world’s dairy farms.
Advanced Animal Diagnostics – US
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. The technology uses the animal’s immune system response to identify and determine the stage of infections, offering an alternative to blanket preventative antibiotic-administration, which is increasingly blamed for growing antibiotic resistance, while also saving traditional testing time and expense. Advanced Animal Diagnostics is backed by agriculture funds Cultivian Sandbox and Middleland Capital, and life sciences VC Novartis Venture Fund.
Cainthus – Ireland
Cainthus is an Irish startup focused on using computer vision and predictive imaging analysis to monitor the health and well-being of livestock. Cainthus uses various types of imaging equipment to monitor livestock operations while artificial intelligence and custom algorithms detect behavior in individual animals to monitor their health and alert the user when an action is required. The Cainthus system is able to detect food and water intake in individual animals as well as when the animals are in heat. Imagery can come from drones, satellites, CCTV, and smart devices, but the most common set-up in Cainthus trials is an installation of a few dozen CCTV cameras on dairy farms. Cainthus is backed by Cargill.
Connecterra – The Netherlands
Connecterra is a Dutch animal health monitoring technology company that manufactures wearable devices for dairy cows to monitor their health in real-time using machine learning and sensor technology. Dairy wearables are nothing new as cows have been wearing pedometers for at least 20 years. But the devices on the market today and previously, have been hardware technologies for the most part. In order to make use of the information coming from them, farmers and their advisors have had to analyze the data themselves. Connecterra is hoping to remove that burden using machine learning to interpret the data for the farmer, in the cloud. Connecterra is backed by UK IoT-focused incubator Breed Reply, UAE-based fund MENA Venture Investments, Japanese video game developer DeNA, and angel investor Elias Tabet.
Consumer Physics – Israel
Cargill Animal Nutrition is collaborating with Israeli startup Consumer Physics 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. This can help farmers to improve the diet of their herd and improve feeding efficiency. The University of Wisconsin has shown dry matter variation of 6-10% between lots of both alfalfa and corn silages. With today’s precision diets, those variations in dry matter can result in lost production, wasted nutrients, or both.
Epi BIome – US
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. Bovine mastitis, which infects cows’ udders and renders their milk unfit for human consumption, is the primary reason to administer antibiotics in today’s livestock industry. EpiBiome is developing alternatives to small-molecule antibiotics. The ultimate phage cocktail could be administered directly into the udder using a syringe. Because phages are self-propagating, the company believes that far fewer applications would be required than existing antibiotic therapies. And unlike the current antibiotic-based protocol, the cow would not have to be removed from production during treatment. The naturally occurring, non-GMO phages are also promising for the organic industry, which disallows the use of antibiotics.
EpiBiome is backed by the accelerator program of genome sequencing company Illumina – Illumina Accelerator Boost Capital – contributed to the round alongside Matrix Capital Management, Alexandria Venture Investments, SV Tech Ventures, and China Rock Capital Management.
Mastiline – Netherlands
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. It does so by detecting somatic cell counts, which indicate whether mastitis is present. The technology allows dairy farmers to reduce costs as a result of mastitis prevention, reduce the use of antibiotics, increase overall herd yield, and get better pricing for good quality milk with a low somatic cell count. Mastiline is backed by Dutch investment and development agency NOM, Dutch loan financiers Doefonds Fryslân, and early-stage impact investment firm SHIFT Invest.
Silent Herdsman – Israel
Silent Herdsman has 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. To maintain milk production, dairy cows must be bred regularly. Determining when the cow is ready to breed or whether health problems have arisen that might impact her breeding capability, is critical to keeping operations flowing smoothly.
Developed with the Scottish Government’s support, the patented, neck-mounted device tracks cow activity, rumination, and eating patterns to help farmers keep a closer track of each cow’s condition. The collar transmits data wirelessly to a central computer on the farm using a base station. The farmer can also receive alerts to his or her cell phone or tablet using the software’s cloud computing platform. Israeli dairy farm management technology provider Afimilk acquired Silent Herdsman in 2016.
StellApps – India
Stellapps offers data collection and analytics to every piece of the dairy supply chain with the aim of improving the productivity, and quality of milk, and producing transparent data both for and about the Indian dairy industry. The full stack includes 26 different sensors across the chain. On the farms, wearable devices collect animal specific data from the cows and buffalos. At the dairy collection sites, quality analysis sensors measure fat content to assess the quality of the milk to help with pricing. These records are sent automatically to the dairy company’s headquarters and the farmer’s phone via SMS — quantifying the quality of milk removes the guesswork and variability out of pricing. In the cold chain, sensors monitor the conditions to give dairy collection companies more control over the quality of their product and enable to produce more transparent information for their end customer. StellApps is backed by Blume Ventures, Binny Bansal, cofounder of Flipkart, Venture Highway, and India-focused agtech VC Omnivore Partners.
TL BIolabs – US
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.
It has a vertically integrated system, meaning TL Biolabs manufactures its own ear tags to automatically collect tissue samples upon tag insertion. It also stores samples at its facility in Santa Clara, California, and customers can order tests at any time through the herd management software platform. The results are returned in around one to two weeks. TL Biolabs is backed by venture capital heavyweight Andreessen Horowitz, along with UK entrepreneur Josh Buckley, and accelerator Y Combinator.