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Sensor sensibility

Use of smart technology on dairy farms allows more precise management decisions for tasks such as grass allocation, milk yield monitoring and slurry application.

In modern dairy farm systems, data may be considered a valuable asset that can aid farmers in making critical management decisions. However, data must be easily collected, accurate, and analysed and interpreted correctly. Dairy farms in Ireland are currently challenged with sustainability concerns associated with the environment, herd management and animal welfare, alongside farm family quality of life issues, while also consistently aiming to increase profitability. Digital technology presents a strategy that could contribute a significant role in meeting these challenges, particularly with the availability of real-time data from smart technologies.

Smart sensor networks can provide rural farms with crucial real-time data for metrics such as milk levels and grass growth

Establishing a framework

Ploutos is a European Union-funded sustainable innovation project; it is one of 11 such projects in place across EU countries including Greece, Spain, Italy and France. Bernadette O’Brien, a Principal Research Officer for Teagasc, explains: “The overarching aim of the Ploutos project is to enhance the sustainability of the agri-food chain by establishing a sustainable framework powered by a combination of behaviour innovation, collaborative business model innovation and data-driven technology services.”

Within the Ploutos project, one pilot programme aims to establish and test a Smart Farming Strategy on rural farms, while also demonstrating its benefit in the wider agri-food community on the Dingle Peninsula. The Dingle Innovation Hub is leading this pilot programme with contributions from Teagasc and Net Feasa, a sensor technology company based in Dingle.

Integrating technology

The vision is to integrate smart technology into pasture-based systems focusing initially on dairy production, says Bernadette. “Initially, six dairy farmers were enrolled as ‘Ambassador’ farmers in the pilot programme. A long-range wide area network system was initially used to allow sensor communication. Sensor technologies were chosen based on the importance of their respective and combined data for decision-making on farms and cost effectiveness. “Firstly, farmers were encouraged to focus on grass measurement and use the grassland management tool PastureBase Ireland (PBI). Then, a network of sensor technologies was installed on the farms, including sensors to measure milk height and slurry height in their respective storage tanks (for conversion to volume) and soil moisture.”

A weather station was also installed that measured wind speed, temperature and rainfall. Following significant interest in the project, there was an additional rollout of sensors to farms on the Dingle Peninsula, bringing the total number of farms to 28. A new platform was installed to facilitate communication from this larger number of sensors.   

Gathering the data

In addition to measuring levels of slurry, milk and soil moisture, the project also seeks to gather data on grass growth.“For grass measurement and grass growth prediction,” says Bernadette, “the farmers were asked to undertake weekly farm walks to record their grass covers and upload their data to the PBI database. Some farmers initially used the visual estimation method for grass measuring, but increasingly transferred to using a manual rising plate meter.”

Farm-specific grass growth predictions were made available on a weekly basis to those farmers that provided regular grass measures; weather data was also used in this model. A predicted grass growth rate helped to estimate grass availability in the following week, allowing more precise planning for grass allocation to animals.  The low-cost milk sensor measures the height of milk in the bulk tank on an hourly basis; this height data was then converted to volume using relationship data (milk height and associated volume as measured by the purchasing co-op at milk collection), developed over time for each bulk tank. Thus, information on daily and weekly milk yield per cow was available to the farmer, explains Bernadette, “This milk production data could then be examined in conjunction with the grass data from PBI and the weather data. Together, these may be used to judge appropriate grass allocation or alternative nutritional options.”

Similarly, the slurry sensor measures the height of the slurry stored in the slurry tank, with the height reading updated every six hours. A calculation is available to convert the sensor height measurements to volume and percentage of available remaining tank capacity. As Bernadette explains, this information, together with slurry tank fill rate, soil moisture and rainfall data assists farmers in making more informed decisions about when to apply slurry within the National Guidelines. “The value of slurry has increased in recent times due to the rising cost of chemical fertiliser; access to the slurry data in conjunction with farm mapping helps farmers to use less fertiliser and apply slurry more effectively to achieve optimal growth.”

Further, the soil moisture probe measures moisture in the soil on an hourly basis using hertz as the unit of measurement. The hertz reading is then converted to percentage soil moisture. The soil moisture data may be used in conjunction with the weather data in deciding on an appropriate timeframe for fertiliser application.

Automated slurry sensors can provide key data for more informed decisions on when to apply slurry

Access and monitor

The data from the different sensors is cleaned, analysed and presented on an app called EvenKeel. This app was developed to allow the farmer to access and monitor the data collected. The information collected by the sensors is displayed in text and graphical form. The farmer may view the data results and trends over hourly, daily, weekly and monthly timeframes. Data-driven farming strategies show great potential, provided that proper measures are taken, says Bernadette, explaining that there are three key lessons to take away from this pilot programme. “Firstly, the technologies must be relevant, appropriate and cost-effective; the data must be farmer user-friendly; and sensors must be regularly checked and serviced.”

Smart sensor technology on-farm can provide evidence-based information on the farming system; this can be particularly important in, for example, describing positive environmental attributes of the farm. The capture and use of real time data — rather than just historical data — is also important and can have a positive impact on efficiencies and improve the accuracy of day-to-day decision-making. 


This project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement Nº 101000594.


Bernadette O’Brien
Principal Research Officer,
Teagasc Moorepark.

Violet Ryan

Technician, Teagasc Moorepark.

Elodie Ruelle

Senior Research Officer, Teagasc Moorepark.

[pic credit] Teagasc