Dairy rocket science in your back pocket

A combination of big-picture dairy farm thinking and the computer programming that runs America's nuclear energy system to help you make financial and environmental decisions? Yes, there's an app for that – Farm Smart™.

In a down year like 2009, farm managers might consider multiple scenarios to see which management decisions cut costs or minimizes losses fastest. In an up year like 2014, the same number of scenarios might be analyzed to find future opportunities for the best return on investment (ROI).

Unfortunately, the best scenarios are often never determined, because finding ballpark numbers for big projects can be difficult, time-consuming and simply too cumbersome to complete while managing day-to-day farming operations.

Rocket-powered, feeding to breeding

 That's why staff at the Dairy Management Inc."s (DMI) Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy are working with Idaho National Laboratory (INL) – the place that develops technology for America's nuclear industry. They are developing Farm Smart™ using INL's generalized environmental for modeling system (G.E.M.S), similar to that used in aerospace engineering.

 "Traditional agriculture software takes a model, puts it into code using algorithms, and spits out one answer," explained Wesley Matthews, vice president of integrated systems for the Innovation Center. "But we needed a tool that laid all the scientific information we have in the dairy industry, side-by-side. Maybe we can analyze a new manure system using energy information from NRCS, feed data from the University of Wisconsin, and nutrient management science from Cornell to find multiple answers based on financial and environmental goals."

Matthews, who previously working in software development and information technology management, now has 2 years under his belt working on the project.

"We had no template to follow," Matthews explained. "There are bits and pieces of this information everywhere, between USDA, private companies and universities. So it takes time to put it all together using this complex computer modeling."

Farm Smart™ started with versions 1.0 and 1.5, which allowed farmers to measure and track their carbon footprint and energy use. But with version 2.0 – now in its beta testing form on a handful of U.S. farms – the program gives information back to the farmer in a way that helps with farm management decisions by assessing both environmental and financial impacts.

More than 100 people – farmers, industry, researchers and computer programmers – are involved in the development of Farm Smart. In addition to developing a useful tool, they must keep privacy and data protected in an everychanging cyber security landscape. Farmers" identity and location are always protected.

One alpha and beta tester is Brian Medeiros, a California producer with 2,500 cows on 2,000 acres. Medeiros lives on a second-generation farm started by his dad, in Hanford, Calif. His father, Rui, emigrated from Portugal and began working on dairies, starting his own operation with 64 cows in 1994. Brian and Rui formed the Medeiros &; Son Dairy partnership in 2003.

Brian Medeiros has seen the development of Farm Smart at the beginning, serving on the Innovation Center's Sustainability Council since June 2008, and the DMI board since November 2013.

"This is an innovative analytical tool," he insisted. "I don't know if it will be revolutionary, but it definitely has the potential to be. It could, really quickly, be a tool to show me how to save ‘X" amount of dollars or have less impact on the environment in a real-time model."

This summer, Brian was dealing with decisions brought on by the drought, which forced Medeiros &; Son Dairy to keep 45% of acres fallow. They learned quickly to give the rest of the land water only when it needed it – a decision that made a big difference in crop yields.

"Farm Smart could help us figure out the impact of flood versus drip irrigation. Rather than just imagining, we could actually tack a number to it," Medeiros said. "It could be a huge time saver."

Read how assistant editor Lucas Sjostrom tested FarmSmart on his farm, here: Bringing FarmSmart Home

Another member of the advisory team

"I think it's good for measuring, taking a snapshot in time ofthe processes today, and what the potential carbon footprint of changes to the operation might be, with dollar savings as well," said Mitch Breunig of the 400-cow Mystic Valley Dairy, Sauk City, Wis. As a member of the Sustainability Council, he is also beta-tester of the Farm Smart™ program.

"If my farm team members and I are thinking about the next things we want to do," Breunig explained, "…if they're equal in cost, but different in carbon-friendliness, it would help our decision-making process."

Matthews said the team will continue to add to the robust framework they created, and soon it will be public for all farmers to use.

A toolkit already provides a wealth of information on feeding, energy, herd management, and how to communicate your results with the public. If the beta version of Farm Smart™ 2.0 is a glimpse to where we are going, it could help in many of the most time-consuming parts of business planning and analysis.

"Farmers have a long history of stewardship, but it is difficult to track and quantify," he explained. "This, too, can show areas of opportunity for our farmers, and showcase our industry's improvement to consumers."

Editor's note: This article appeared in our November 2014 issue of Dairy Herd Management. Read the article as printed, when it is available, here:http://edp.dairyherd.com/dairyherd-issue-archives/

Additional reading:

Bringing FarmSmart Home - The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy granted Dairy Herd Management access to the beta version of Farm Smart™, testing it on the dairy where we reside in Minnesota. The potential behind the software's power was evident early.



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