Virtual farm brain to help dairy farmers make smarter decisions

Scientists working on “virtual dairy farm brain” to collect and integrate all of farm’s data streams in real time and analyze data to aid in management decisions.

Tim Lundeen 1, Feedstuffs Editor

August 23, 2017

4 Min Read
Virtual farm brain to help dairy farmers make smarter decisions
University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor of dairy science Victor Cabrera is heading up a multidisciplinary team that aims to create a “virtual dairy farm brain” to help farmers make better management decisions.Photo by Ted Halbach/UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science.

As dairy farms add new technologies such as individual cow monitors, automated feeding systems and robotic milking parlors, and as those technologies are further developed, dairy producers are confronted with ever-increasing amounts of raw data on individual cow and herd-level performance. Those data hold promise for improved decision-making and operational efficiency.

However, oftentimes, those technologies fail to communicate with each other.

“We’re generating a lot of data every day from a bunch of different systems — a feed system, a milk system, how much milk you actually ship — and none of those systems talk to each other,” said Mitch Breunig, a dairy farmer in Wisconsin who is participating in a project to find a way to harness the emerging data.

The upshot is that while Breunig has access to great data, he can’t use it the way he’d like. For example, he’d like to have a daily report of his feed efficiency — pounds of milk produced per pound of feed consumed — so he can adjust his rations to improve profitability. However, it’s a pain to calculate because it requires data from his feed management software, written notes on tanker weight and reports texted from his milk buyer.

“You can enter it by hand, but you haven’t got the time, so you don’t do it for a week, and then you go back and do the data, and you cram it in,” he said. “Unless you’re doing it every day, it’s hard to get it right. You’re always looking way too far in the rearview mirror. The data are generated every day. We should be able to look at it every day.”

Soon, there could be an app for that. A multidisciplinary team of University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists has set out to create a “virtual dairy farm brain” that will collect and integrate all of a farm’s data streams in real time and then use artificial intelligence to analyze those data to help farmers make better management decisions.

The dairy industry really needs to get to this level in data management, according to team leader Victor E. Cabrera, a University of Wisconsin-Madison dairy science professor who develops software that helps dairy farmers evaluate management options.

“Dairy farms have embraced a lot of technologies that generate vast amounts of data,” he said. “The problem is that farmers haven’t been able to integrate this information to improve whole-farm decision-making."

The University of Wisconsin team, which includes dairy scientists, agricultural economists and computer scientists, has started by streaming data on about 4,000 cows in three Wisconsin herds (including Breunig’s) to a campus-based server.

Dairy scientists are no strangers to data management, but wrangling so many streams of disparate data in real time requires a specialized skill set. That’s why the team is collaborating with the University of Wisconsin Center for High Throughput Computing based at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

“It’s not just a matter of having access to systems that can handle big data sets; we also need the expertise to filter it. We are collecting a lot of data, but a lot of it is repetitious or not relevant. We need be able to filter out the noise and attach identifiers to each type of data. To do this in real time is not a trivial thing,” Cabrera said.

Computer science expertise is also key to the project’s second step, which is using artificial intelligence to more accurately predict the outcome of various management options. The computer scientists will devise algorithms that analyze what’s happening on the farms — which inputs result in which outcomes — and then use what they learn to do a better job of predicting.

The final step will be to apply what they’ve learned to create intuitive, cloud-based decision-making support tools that allow farmers to use real-time data from their farms to make smarter management decisions.

In addition to Breunig’s Mystic Valley Farm near Sauk City, Wis., the team is streaming data from Larson Acres near Evansville, Wis., and the University of Wisconsin dairy science department’s own research herd.

“We called this project the virtual dairy farm brain because we’re trying to mimic the thinking of a very good dairy farm manager,” Cabrera said. “We’re going to start by seeing what the manager decides to do with the data and then see what our system would come up with as potentially the best decision."

When the two-year project is completed, Cabrera hopes to follow it up with a larger study involving 100-200 farms representing a variety of sizes and management styles.

“We think the methodology should apply to any farm. It could be adjusted to suit whatever data are available,” Cabrera said. “The basic approach would be very similar on a 100-cow farm or an 8,000-cow operation. The concept would not be different as long as you have good-quality data. Every farm is generating data. It’s just a question of how it’s used.”

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