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Scholar profile: Duncan Macdonald

Scholar profile: Duncan Macdonald

TRANSLATING DATA TO VALUABLE DECISION MAKING

 

There has been a strong emphasis on data collection for farm businesses in recent years, but ensuring it translates into real, profitable outcomes remains a key challenge for many, finds Nuffield Scholar and Tasmanian dairy farmer Duncan Macdonald.

Based near Burnie, in northwest Tasmania, Mr Macdonald works in partnership with his wife and father to run two 200-hectare dairy operations, which include more than 500 cows, as well as a young stock block.

In 2017, he was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship supported by the Bonlac Supply Company and the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Foundation, to investigate new collection and processing options for farm data.

With a keen interest in the potential for technology to increase productivity and secure a more sustainable future, Mr Macdonald utilised his Nuffield Scholarship to investigate the practical application of data in dairy businesses.

“Farmers are no longer constricted to PC-based software, with web-based software now readily available and terms like drones, big data, internet of things, machine learning and artificial intelligence becoming common place,” Mr Macdonald said.

“However, a divide still exists between the plethora of these products and services, and the actual uptake on farm, especially in the Australian dairy industry where adoption of Agtech has been fairly low.

“My Scholarship set out to investigate technologies that will achieve the greatest benefit for our industry, as well as understand how solutions can be targeted, outcome driven, and practical for dairy farms.”

The first part of Mr Macdonald’s report focussed on data collection and technology options for cow and paddock data, and cites immediate and emerging commercial options available to farmers.

“It’s estimated that only 35% of Australian dairy farmers are keeping consistent records of breeding and medical treatments. In the past, keeping cow records, particularly at peak times of the year, has been an intensive, monotonous task and prone to error,” he said.

“New technologies, such as the creation of a wide range of cow wearable sensors, have recently entered the market. The most advanced are able to detect and monitor oestrus, mastitis, lameness, calving and even the onset of illness.

“Dutch-owned company, Connecterra, has recently developed a machine learning focused piece of software that allows the wearable device to develop farm specific algorithms from user feedback.

“Connecterra also offers a subscription-based sales contract for the wearable devices, which avoids an expensive initial outlay.

“My research found that while wearable devices are most suitable for housed systems, their popularity in grazing situations is growing. More needs to be done to support a clear financial ROI, but it’s evident they provide good outcomes, especially in animal welfare.”

The second part of Mr Macdonald’s report focussed on software and network options for collating information and maximising decision making from the technology, in areas such as pasture management.

“In terms of monitoring grass growth, farmers have access to a range of efficient and reasonably accurate techniques, but reports suggest only 20% of farmers are measuring and assessing the data,” he said.

“There is still a place for managing pasture with farm walks and a trained eye, but I also discovered some emerging solutions such as the C-Dax robotic unit which operates almost continuously by returning to a set charging station.

“Although it’s still in development, the designers believe the future unit would not just measure grass growth, but also monitor weeds and muster cows. It’s been designed to retail for less than the cost of a traditional quad bike.”

Mr Macdonald reiterated that any software developments need to focus on helping farmers make decisions from data, and if farmers do not trust the data, they will not make decisions from it.

“Farmers have specific preferences when it comes to data. They don’t want to see more streams of raw data, log on to multiple apps, or complicate their systems,” he said.

“They want data summarised as valuable information, displayed in customised dashboards that provide notifications on what is working well and what isn’t.

“My travels reinforced that digital agriculture must build on our strengths as an industry, such as our seasonal calving pastured dairy systems, which are inherently robust and simple in their success.”

Mr Macdonald’s full report is now available and includes insights from leading farmers, agribusinesses and

developers from North America, Europe, Africa and New Zealand.

He says that with applications now open for 2020, there is never a better time to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship.

“I was inspired to apply by my grandfather Kenneth, a New Zealand dairy farmer, who completed a 1971 Nuffield Scholarship on the differences between UK and NZ dairy farming,” he said.

“Our family saw the life-changing contacts and opportunities that Nuffield creates, but it wasn’t until I attended a precision dairy conference in the Netherlands, that I saw the real benefits of applying firsthand,” he said.

“I urge those with a passion for primary production to apply – it’s a global opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.”

Download Duncan’s report here

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