Driving around rural Ireland, it’s easy to guess Ireland’s biggest agricultural sector: dairy, dairy, and dairy. Though Irish farmers also grow cereals, potatoes, beans and peas, oilseed rape, and maize, 90% of Irish farmland is grassland and that means dairy — and to a lesser extent beef. A 2017 report from the Irish Food Board valued the country’s dairy industry at €3.38 billion ($4 billion).
Ireland’s grass-based dairy industry has likely kept the country’s dairy yields from matching the heights of the top three global producers: the US, the Netherlands, and the UK — milk production drops when cows eat more forage as opposed to grain. But Finbar Mulligan of the University College Dublin Lyons Dairy and Research Center says that this isn’t necessarily a problem; grass is a low-cost feed in the wet and impossibly green hills of rural Ireland, resulting in favorable economics to grain-fed dairy.
Between 1984 and 2015, the European Union’s dairy industry operated under a quota system, capping milk production in each country to avoid oversupply. Individual farmers in Ireland were assessed on their milk production from the previous three years and issued individual quotas. If they produced beyond their prescription, they would be fined.
The much-resented quota system was abolished in 2015, which led to farmers growing their herds and the Irish government putting in place ambitious goals.
Ireland’s published goal, part of its Food Harvest 2020 plan, is to increase milk production by 50% by 2020. From February 2015 to 2016, Ireland upped its milk production by 37% to 295 million liters, miles ahead of the EU’s 5% bump in overall production in roughly the same time period.
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But the existing infrastructure was not set up to instantly manage a drastic uptick in production. This has promoted technological advancement.
The advance of the robotic milkers
Robotic milkers, which allow cows to be milked at a faster rate with less labor, have been around since the 1990s, although Irish farmers have been slower to use the technology than the rest of Europe. This is likely because driving cows into the milking area is more difficult in a pasture-based system than a more concentrated feedlot scenario, according to Teagasc, the state agricultural research service. Teagasc estimates that there are 500 automatic milking setups in Ireland (North and South) and 17,000 dairy farmers with an average herd size of 60 cows.
Irish company 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.
A 2015 Teagasc study of the issue concluded that automated milking would have a positive impact even on grass-based dairy farms, but Teagasc offers many reasons that farmers are not taking the plunge into full automation including little research about converting a grass-based operation to automated milking, the costs of converting, and the low price of milk. With so much labor needed in the dairy industry, due in part to a lack of automation, Teagasc is studying bring agricultural students from outside the country into Ireland for the first time, according to Agriland.
But there is also a challenge when it comes to what to do with all the new milk that’s being produced and the waste associated with extra milk production.
The need to add value
“The real manifestation of the abolition of quotas for me was the pressure that brought to bear on our dairy industry to develop new products to use the milk,” says Alan Hobbs, manager of high potential startups for Enterprise Ireland, a government organization with the mission of promoting Irish businesses all over the world.
Since fresh milk has a short shelf life and is produced in much of Europe, it has limited export potential, so Ireland has accepted that it needs to beef up its value-added product processing and get into more premium markets, Hobbs argues.
The government and Enterprise Ireland have put a few plans in place to deal with the extra supply, including the Food Health Ireland (FHI) initiative, founded in 2006 and funded by Enterprise Ireland. FHI is a research organization that has already produced six patents for dairy-derived compounds and products —- such as “a nutritional supplement suitable for increasing lean tissue mass in a mammal” — and eight licenses for commercial use.
Also funded by Enterprise Ireland and industry partners The Dairy Processing Technology Centre researches cost-effective and environmentally sustainable dairy processing.
Producing more value-added products might also help Ireland weather the inevitable storm around the UK’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) in a few years’ time.
Ireland sells a substantial amount of its milk to the UK in the form of cheddar cheese. But many industry players say that Ireland must shift from relying so heavily on trade with the UK as, due to Brexit, this trade could soon become more difficult, more expensive, or be cut off completely in favor of domestic production.
“You want to get away from large commodity blocks of cheddar cheese as you can’t now, in hindsight with the Brexit scenario, overly rely on a low-value product,” said Hobbs. The country is now focused on cheeses that are more popular in mainland Europe (a Jarlsberg factory is in the works) and infant formula (Danone has a drying facility for formula production in Cork, Ireland), a product that prizes the high nutritional content of grass-fed milk.
Hobbs, who used to promote Irish businesses in China, says that he sees “life-stage formulas” or dairy-based nutritional beverages formulated to support ages beyond infancy, as a growing possibility in that massive market as well. Perhaps an Irish Soylent is on the way? An FHI patent for a toddler formula would suggest the answer might be yes.
Other products finding new markets for Irish milk include startup Improper Butter, which is targeting millennials with butter containing herbs and vegetables with flavors like tomato, basil, garlic, and chilis. The company raised a €200,000 ($240,000) seed round earlier this year from individual investors. Organics are gaining ground as well with one dairy coop, turned cheesemaker, even selling to the French.
What about the extra waste?
Even if all the milk is sold and put to use, Ireland will be left with a big waste problem as the herd grows. In signing the Paris Climate Accords, the EU has agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030.
Agriculture comprises an eighth of gross domestic product (GDP) in Ireland, and its emissions comprise a third of total emissions, according to a 2015 article in The Irish Times. The article suggests that some farmers are looking at different feedstock options to diminish the methane emissions coming from their ruminant animals; a recent article in the Veterinarian Ireland Journal said that through honing in on diet and digestion, methane production could be curtailed.
But Thomas Wilmington of DIT Hothouse, a technology incubator at the Dublin Institute of Technology, has a plan to deal with the waste by capturing the methane produced and converting it into biogas.
According to Wilmington, farmers currently store cattle waste in the concrete tanks under the floor of their cow sheds. The waste is then pumped out and spread as fertilizer once a year, completely untreated.
He says that as a result of not treating the waste, “our methane emissions are some of the highest per capita [of heads of cattle] in the world; it’s crazy.”
Wilmington, an engineer and university lecturer, has invented a solution in cooperation with DIT Hothouse. The invention, called the “Slurry Solver,” is 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.
“With this technology, we can reduce the methane content in the manure by two-thirds … So even if we just burnt it and let it go off into free air, our emissions factor is going from 24 down to one,” explains Wilmington.
The biofuel generated in one of these tanks in one year could provide the equivalent fuel of 30,000 liters of kerosene, worth roughly €15,000 ($18,000), according to Wilmington,
Future of dairy
Waste and processing are just two of the challenges presented by a growing dairy industry in Ireland — other challenges include cow monitoring and safety, detecting when animals are in heat or giving birth, non-antibiotic disease prevention, and genetic optimization
And with the industry so core to Ireland’s export economy, it’s not a surprise that tech startups are cropping up to solve some of these challenges.
Here’s a selection of a few others I encountered at Enterprise Ireland’s outpost at the recent Irish National Ploughing Championships:
Bull Match – App that genetically matches cows with bulls to find the ideal match to produce a calf to the desired standard.
Herdwatch – Wearable that enables quick record checks and updates for individual cows
Lir Anaytical Ltd – Disinfectant technologies to eliminate mastitis in milking cows
Moocall – Wearable that detects when a cow is in heat and alerts the farmer
VT – IoT-based services for livestock farmer