"Virtual Dairy Farm Brain" aims to help farmers make smarter decisions

Wisconsin State Farmer
Victor Cabrera, associate professor in the UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science, is heading up a multidisciplinary team of UW scientists that aims to create a “virtual dairy farm brain” that will help farmers make better management decisions. Photo by Ted Halbach/UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science.

MADISON - There's a failure to communicate on Mitch Breunig's dairy farm. The problem doesn't involve people — Breunig and his crew share information just fine. It has to do with the technologies that Breunig uses to manage his operation. They're "smart," but they're not speaking to each other.

"We're generating a lot of data every day from a bunch of different systems — a feed system, a milk system, how much milk you actually ship. And none of those systems talk to each other," Breunig says.

The upshot is that while Breunig has access to great data, he can't use it the way he'd like. For example, he'd like to have a daily report of his feed efficiency - pounds of milk produced per pound of feed consumed - so he could adjust his rations to improve profitability. But it's a pain to calculate because it requires data from his feed management software, written notes on tanker weight, and reports texted from his milk buyer.

"You can enter it by hand, but you haven't got the time, so you don't do it for a week, and then you go back and do the data, and you cram it in," he says. "Unless you're doing it every day, it's hard to get it right. You're always looking way too far in the rearview mirror. The data is generated every day. We should be able to look at it every day."

There ought to be an app for that, and soon there could be. A multidisciplinary team of University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists has set out to create a "virtual dairy farm brain" that will collect and integrate all of a farm's data streams in real time and then use artificial intelligence to analyze those data to help farmers make better management decisions.

The dairy industry really needs to get to this level in data management, says team leader Victor E. Cabrera, a UW-Madison dairy science professor who develops software that helps dairy farmers evaluate their management options.

"Dairy farms have embraced a lot of technologies that generate vast amounts of data," he says. "The problem is that farmers haven't been able to integrate this information to improve whole-farm decision-making."