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Peter Wren-Hilton

Major lessons from Ireland last week. New Zealand’s dairy sector take note.

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I am reflecting on last week’s truly epic visit to Ireland by the New Zealand agritech delegation.

I thought I had a reasonable handle on the state of the country’s dairy sector. Smaller family-owned farms (average herd size of approx. 80 cows), pasture-based, herringbone milking sheds and no lack of rain. Whilst this reflects the reality on the ground, I hadn’t fully understood its implication. The fact that smaller family-owned farms have been handed down over several generations means that there is relatively little (land) farm debt. The other major change in the dairy landscape was triggered 5 years ago when the EC removed milk quotas. It means that milk production has increased by 50% over the last 5 years; a trend that is likely to continue.

This all coincides at a time when Ireland’s beef sector is struggling (our visit coincided with major protests, pickets and layoffs at many of the country’s largest processors). Farm gate prices for beef are at pretty much an all-time low. This is likely to see many more dairy conversions as dry stock farmers convert to dairy. To sum up: Herd sizes are growing, production will increase and more players are entering the market.

One of the key findings of our visit was that this growth is being supported by significant public and industry investment into dairy research. On Thursday, the delegation (pictured above) visited Teagasc at Moorepark, just outside Fermoy in County Cork. Teagasc – the Agriculture and Food Development Authority – is the national body providing integrated research, advisory and training services to the agriculture and food industry and rural communities.

We learnt a lot more about the Irish dairy landscape. This included a visit to the Teagasc robotic dairy farm. This is automating a significant amount of on-farm process. It’s driving down costs and the cows looked happy enough to me. They get to choose when they go to the milking shed and there, the robots get to work. Not a person in sight.

Driving much of this research is VistaMilk, the SRI Research Centre for precision-based dairy production and processing. The research programme has been designed to develop new, and advance existing electronic monitoring and actuation technologies to transform Ireland’s dairy sector into a global leader in sustainable agritech. It will specifically address pasture-based dairy production, improved processability and the generation of novel, higher-value-added products. In addition to the creation of new sensing and actuation paradigms, particular focus will be given to developing state-of-the-art analytical techniques applied to largescale, sensor data-sets delivered by advanced network and communication technologies.

The programme is supported by 28 industry partners. Through what appears to be a strategy of highly-interconnected innovative scientific ventures and disciplines, VistaMilk will develop and deploy scientific solutions, informed by sophisticated data analytical approaches, to support Ireland’s dairy sector.

It’s time for the New Zealand dairy sector to take note.

Ordinarily, I would leave it that. Not this time however. In order to engage more directly with the Irish agritech sector, we are looking at ways to deepen the connection. Next week, I am speaking to the team at DogPatch Labs in Dublin to test the case for a formal landing pad for New Zealand agritech companies seeking to enter the Irish market. The delegation visited DogPatch Labs on Friday and we were all impressed. Finistere Ventures, a Farm2050 partner, are based on-site, as are representatives from Irish agritech heavyweight, Alltech. I visited the facility last December during the AgTech Nexus Europe conference. Impressed then. Impressed now.

I’ll provide an update on next week’s talks. Ireland offers New Zealand agritech companies similar pastoral farming systems to those back home. Its dairy sector is expanding rapidly. It also offers a dual hemisphere opportunity to speed up R&D and in-market field trials. It’s an opportunity that we will seek to leverage through increased collaboration and cooperation.

In short, we’ll be back.

Peter Wren-Hilton Peter is Executive Director of Agritech New Zealand and founder of Wharf42 in Tauranga. Peter helps organise major agritech conferences in New Zealand and offshore and connects early stage New Zealand agritech companies with international markets.