Farmers in need of time

Author: Maarten Crivits (ILVO) - 13 December 2016

At the Hooibeekhoeve, the provincial extension and testing station for dairy farming in Geel (Belgium), local farmers met to discuss the relevance of implementing data from sensors to support their daily decisions. During the event, a lively discussion unfolded about the potential utility of a milking robot, the possibilities of doing more with data from farming software programs and the role of advisors. The 4D4F team took home some important lessons about labor efficiency and the organization of data management support.

While none of the participants made use of a milking robot, important considerations were made about the reasons for a potential future purchase. Remarkably, it was not the desire to increase milk yield per cow that motivated farmers to consider a milking robot yet the need to organize labor more appropriately. One farmer who milked about 200 cows indicated his farm to be in need for an additional working force. It was because he could not find adequate candidates with a passion for the field and a long term engagement that he is considering a robot.

This illustrates how PLF technology also needs to be considered in relation to the larger societal system in which farming takes places: maybe we need to invest in a match-making system between skilled labor and dairy farmers? Another farmer, mature in age working together with his son, indicated that a robot would alleviate him from heavy physical labor. In Europe, where family farms are still of utter importance such considerations might be crucial for ageing farmers often keep on working on the farm to help out their relatives.



Another topic of discussion  at the meeting was related to the software programs farmers use in order to help them interpreting on-farm data. All farmers used the same software program and mainly used the system to register basic data such as milk yield and cell counts. They also indicated that they felt they could get more out of the data they had, yet lacked time to become skilled in managing and interpreting these data. A discussion unfolded about what could be an interesting approach. Since each farmer has specific considerations it could be interesting to organize a workshop using real life dairy farm data and outcomes. Also the question was raised how different software data and programs could be more integrated.

Finally, the topic of advisors was discussed.  Although all of the participating farmers had regular visits from vets, feed advisors and bookkeeping experts, data (e.g. coming from their activity meters) was not always systematically analyzed with these actors.  Especially the possibility of an independent nutritionist was considered valuable in this group. Animal nutritionists take, however a niche position in Belgian agriculture. Yet also vets are in a transition phase in which they need to focus more on giving tailored advice for specific farms, moving away from generic treatments. Indeed, sensor information offers numerous data on cow level, leaving open a range of possibilities to get more out of existing data.

What binds these concerns is, however, the farmer’s lack of time. All participating farmers were busy with daily operations, leaving them less time to think through more efficient labor protocols or general decisions to alter organizational aspects. The 4D4F team proposes a topic for a next meeting taking a two-step approach. A first step would be to analyze existing labor management both in terms of job satisfaction, performance and future plans (expansion or scaling down?). Questions that rise: Is it wise to hire skilled labor, are all my daily routines clear and efficient, how could I get more tailored advice and at which price? A second step would then allow thinking through the role of data management and sensors and how these can be integrated in the decisions to make labor more efficient and satisfactory.