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Dairy science takes centre stage

Dr Matthew Smith on AI and agriculture. 

Massey University and AgResearch have brought together top minds in dairying to identify challenges and develop solutions, hosting the 2018 Australasian Dairy Science Symposium (ADSS) in Palmerston North today.

The three-day symposium is the largest technical dairy science meeting in the southern hemisphere, and is held biennially in either Australia or New Zealand.

This year’s chosen theme is “Dairy Science for Profitable and Sustainable Farming”, which asks experts from across Europe and Australasia to identify challenges and develop solutions to problems and issues facing dairying over the coming decade and beyond.

Organising committee co-chairs Professor Danny Donaghy of Massey and Dr David Pacheco of AgResearch, have said from the outset they wish to challenge the presenters and attendees.

“When we set about organising the symposium, we talked to the principal sponsors Dairy NZ and Dairy Australia, and they agreed that this year we really wanted to explore opportunities to collaborate, which was one of the main purposes of the original conferences” Professor Donaghy says.

“We have challenged our keynote speakers to be future-focused. This means that speakers have been asked to not just talk about the answers they’ve uncovered from their research into problems, but also about the gaps in their knowledge – the things they are still searching for solutions to. We hope that as a result of this symposium delegates will gain new insights leading to identification of challenges, and opportunities that the dairy sectors across both sides of the Tasman will face in the future.

“So, we want to think about the next 10, 20, 30 years and beyond, not just what is on the horizon this year or next, and how we can work more collaboratively in New Zealand, across the Tasman and further afield.”

The symposium focuses on identifying the challenges facing dairying in the coming decade, and outline how science is currently responding to develop solutions to those challenges that are well-defined.

There are also three sub-themes which experts will be speaking on: more productive, resilient and sustainable forage-based systems; more productive, resilient and sustainable animals; and the social licence to farm (animal welfare, water quality, greenhouse gases and people and technologies as enablers of productive, attractive and resilient farm systems).

“When I would sit down with a new graduate and try and convince them to come and work with us there priorities have changed. Twenty years ago they would’ve asked about salary, a car, the perks of the job, but today their first question is ‘is your company making a difference in the world’.”

Identifying the challenges for dairy farming in the next 10+ years

In his presentation, Identifying the challenges for dairy farming in the next 10+ years, former Synlait chief executive officer John Penno  talked about the rise of plant-based milk industries, what graduates are seeking in companies, how to help farmers find solutions and how companies can focus on their consumers and products. 

 “You are the thought-leaders who can develop the solutions that farmers can put in place to deal with some of their challenges. But be under no illusion as to the magnitude of the task – they are greater than ever before,” Dr Penno said.

He talked about a concept called “insightful awareness” challenging people to think about the self, others and the context.

“The enemy of learning is certainty. As soon as you become certain of something you dedicate your thinking elsewhere. But it often turns out that the things you were certain of are the things that come back and bite you. We are certain of our strong future, that consumers will always want our products, certain our industry will out-compete others – these certainties aren’t challenged enough."  

Dr John Penno opening the symposium with his presentation, Identifying the challenges for dairy farming in the next 10+ years


Getting value from artificial intelligence in agriculture

Attendees heard from Microsoft’s Dr Matthew Smith, who was invited from the United Kingdom to give his insights into key areas that artificial intelligence (AI) will have on agriculture now and in ten years’ time.

His talk, Getting value from artificial intelligence in agriculture, touched upon everything from robotics to paying lettuce growers to trust AI systems and earn more money.

“My definition of artificial intelligence has changed throughout the years. Now a days I am more likely to explain what agriculture is than AI, but I like to define is as ‘where machines exhibit some degree of intelligence’.

“I think a more useful definition is where AI provides the information, it doesn’t matter so much how it’s done,  is that intelligent – is that useful for me?”

He spoke about the gap between value and technology, and the need to quantify the value produced by sensors on the farm.

“One cool opportunity in active learning is around how much do we need to measure? Sensors are expensive, we worry about how much we are going to need. But if you can create a method to quantify the amount of value you get from adding more sensors in the field, then you can get the optimal amount”

A key concept he discussed was the growing need for digital traceability in agricultural supply chains, a system which allows an organisation to document a product through the stages and operations involved in the manufacture, processing, distribution and handling – so the consumer can be assured of company claims.

“Connecting information on what is applied to the product that we produce, so that consumers can see every stage of production and what has been input in the production of the product. Key way to prove sustainability, being able to relate it all the way through to the consumer. We can do that, computationally we can do that.”

Concluding that it falls to cost-benefit analysis and finding the perfect synergy between data you can collect and its value.

This theme of change was repeated throughout

  • Melbourne University’s Professor Richard Eckard and New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre’s Director Dr Harry Clark - Potential solutions to the major greenhouse gas issues facing Australasian dairy farming
  • AgResearch’s Dr Gosia Zobel and Ministry for Primary Industries’ Dr John Roche - Potential solutions to the major animal welfare issues facing Australasian dairy farming
  • Ireland’s Catherine Stanton (Teagasc) and AgResearch’s Graeme Attwood - Manipulating the rumen microbiome to address challenges facing Australasian dairy farming
  • Massey’s Dr Ranvir Singh - Challenges and potential solutions to the major water quality issues facing pastoral dairy farming.

Full list of speakers

A workshop at the end of the conference will lead attendees through a design-thinking approach to map out solutions to challenges facing dairying.

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