Growing Ideas: Milking data for more efficient farming

A virtual assistant for dairy farmers

Dairy farmers are turning to artificial intelligence to monitor their herds and increase production. A virtual assistant warns farmers if a cow falls ill or shows the effect of a change in feed.

Ida is a virtual assistant for dairy farmers. Ida’s artificial intelligence means that the platform continues to learn not only from farmers’ feedback but also from cows’ behaviors.

The company behind Ida is Amsterdam-based Connecterra, founded by two former Microsoft employees. Initially spending their evenings and weekends working on Connecterra from their basement, they went on to win Start-up of the Year at WebSummit in 2015.

An all-seeing assistant

Yasir Khokhar, CEO of Connecterra lays out the basics: “Ida is an intelligent assistant for dairy farmers. The platform helps farmers to work more efficiently and improve their business, using sensors placed around the cow’s neck and in machines to collect various data. The system also connects to other parties, for example, to get data on the weather.”

This data is then interpreted and used to provide targeted advice. For instance, dairy cows are highly susceptible to diseases, Khokhar explains. “Because Ida is able to identify any problems before they manifest, the farmer has a two or three day head start in which to take action. And because the cow is not ill for as long, the farmer saves on vet’s bills and production loss. Farmers also receive an alert when a cow is fertile, about to calve or is suffering from heat.”

He continues: “By closely monitoring the cows, Ida is also able to show if certain changes have a positive effect. For example, whether a change in feed leads to a higher protein level in the milk. Or if cows produce the same amount of milk on less feed.”

Sensors on cows’ necks are just one point of data collection for Ida.

Increasing production while reducing work pressure

Increasing production while reducing work pressure “Our aim is to contribute to finding a solution to the world food problem,” says Khokhar. “The food industry as a whole will have to increase production by 60 percent if it is to feed the world’s population in 2050. So farmers have to work more efficiently. Greater efficiency is also necessary because there are fewer farmers. The average age of a dairy farmer is 51. The younger generation no longer wants to become farmers, so farmers have to produce more with fewer staff.”

“In Kenya, milk production can double in just a couple months”

- Yasir Khokhar, Connecterra

In Kenya, Ida is already helping to improve the way dairy farmers work. “Their knowledge of cows and running a farm business is at a whole different level. Milk production there can double in just a couple of months.”

Market by market

Breaking into the market can be a challenge, Khokhar admits. “The dairy industry is dominated by a couple of major players. It is a closed world, making it hard for newcomers to get a foot in the door. And it takes time for us outsiders to build a relationship with the established order. We have to win them over, market by market. So it takes longer to grow, unlike in the tech industry where upscaling is much easier.”

Ida is currently being used in thirteen countries, with the Netherlands topping the list. “Danone is a major party and we support their suppliers with Ida. But individual farmers also approach us directly. We offer three subscriptions ranging from €2.50 to €7.50 per cow regardless of how many cows a farmer has. That includes hardware and software.”

“The dairy industry is a closed world”

- Yasir Khokhar, Connecterra

Ruminating on the future

“There are some exciting developments in store, but it’s all still a bit hush-hush,” confesses Khokhar. “What I can say, though, is that for the time being, we are sticking to cows. We have our work cut out for us in the dairy sector – we would really like to work with FrieslandCampina for example.

“But we are also aware that many dairy farmers use their farmland to grow grass or crops like maize and potatoes. Who knows, in future Ida might be able to teach farmers how to optimize their yield per square kilometer.”