Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 23 October 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Farm Management IT Systems: Discussion
I welcome from Teagasc Dr. Tom Kelly, head of knowledge transfer, and Dr. Pat Dillon, head of the animal and grassland research programme; and from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, Mr. Seán Coughlan, chief executive; Mr. John O'Sullivan, chairman; Mr. Michael Doran, vice-chairman, and Mr. Andrew Cromie, head of genetics. I apologise for the delay, but the joint committee had some housekeeping matters to deal with.
By virtue of section 17(2)(i) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are also directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members should be aware that, under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Dr. Kelly to make his opening statement.
Dr. Tom Kelly:
Teagasc welcomes the opportunity to clarify its role and relationship with software companies.
Teagasc is the agriculture and food development authority, a national body providing integrated research, advisory and training services to the agriculture industry. The combination of research and innovation support in one organisation uniquely positions Teagasc to ensure effective and efficient knowledge transfer in rural areas to generate sustainable wealth creation. This marks Teagasc apart from other knowledge providers, such as those in the higher education sector. The organisation conducts knowledge management activities in the agrifood sector through research to generate and procure new knowledge and information, advice in transferring information, and education and training to increase capacity of people within programmes.
Teagasc has identified information and communication technology, ICT, as one of the major opportunities available to increase the adoption of key technologies at farm level and to assist in the delivery of modern advisory services to Irish farmers. Under continuous efficiency gains, Teagasc has implemented an organisational change programme in recent years in order to ensure that it remains fit for purpose and delivers value for public money. The implication of this is that in the future Teagasc will be a smaller, highly innovative, efficient and focused organisation.
Teagasc has used computerisation of farmer information since the 1970s when it provided computerised analysis of farm performance for comparison or benchmarking purposes. Examples include DairyMIS, which was used to analyse data on farm efficiency factors and the national farm survey analysis, which is used for economic research purposes and international comparisons. The information Teagasc collects and processes is a very important asset in showing progress over time and in providing information which is independently verifiable to farmers and policy makers. Teagasc also maintains a database of soil analysis results and the soils map of Ireland, which are important for ongoing essential planning. Computerisation has helped Teagasc to be more effective in how it does its work.
The research, advisory and educational support for the development of Irish agriculture is critical for the future. The ambitious targets for expansion in Food Harvest 2020 and the ongoing challenges of reduced staffing and budgets are pressure points forcing prioritisation of our resources and activities. Teagasc sees the investment in information and communication technology as part of it doing its job better. Teagasc participated in a number of e-Government projects as part of the information society fund, which encouraged increased efficiency in the delivery of public services. The Teagasc e-college, e-profit monitor and soil analysis online were some of the projects which qualified for support.
Teagasc has from the outset promoted and supported the use of third-party farm software. The reality is that these packages are very good recording and analysis tools and are used on several Teagasc farms for livestock management. However, the world has moved on and the means by which data are collected, shared and used are completely different today than in the 1980s and 1990s. Teagasc has a responsibility to its clients to give them accurate and specific advice based on farmers' own information and information from research and similar farms. The benchmarking of farm performance is from the days of DairyMIS to today, with the Teagasc e-profit monitor, Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, reports and grassland management information, and it is now more important than ever. The use of this information by 12,000 farmers participating in discussion groups and potentially 28,000 other farmers in one-to-one consultation is an enormous competitive advantage for Ireland, as other countries do not have this.
Teagasc in its education programmes provides ICT skills training which is guided by stakeholders who participate in the Teagasc education forum. The Internet provides students with access to information, specific services and interaction with other students through social media. Students are required to use the Internet to access and record general and more specific information for their farm and so benefit from the demonstration of adding value to data.
Teagasc has integrated the use of basic entry level ICT tasks into its training programmes for all its courses. These involve the use of and engagement with online databases such as the ICBF database and e-profit monitor for technical and financial benchmarking, as well as various simple spreadsheets for recording, financial planning, grass budgeting and so on. In most instances tasks that would have been previously carried out by paper and calculator are now done electronically and students are exposed to the basics of computer use for their own farm. The use of farm software packages for training of students was always problematic. However, all students are expected to use the reports for colleges and other farms for the relevant enterprises.
For more than four decades computer models and decision support tools have been advocated for guiding farm management. The focus was initially for research but subsequently it was directed to farm advice, which was mostly financial, as well as animal and feeding management. In early years their adoption was modest but in recent years there has been a greater uptake with advances in communication technologies.
The use of a bank of accurate information from trusted farms that are statistically representative of a population is a key development for research. The use of data recorders in the field has been replaced partly by the capacity to tap into farmers' data with their permission and use these in research. A good example of this is the use that ICBF make of data collected through the national breeding database which is used by farmers. Teagasc has been involved in the development of a range of models, such as the Moorepark dairy system model, the Grange beef model, Pasturebase Ireland and so forth, as well as decision support tools such as the mastitis cost calculator, grass calculator and milk payment tool and so on. In recent years these have been used in research, advisory and education activities. It is internationally accepted that the development of these ICT tools will be critical in the adoption of key technologies at farm level.
In the future it can be anticipated that ICT tools will play a much greater role in the adoption of key technologies at farm level. Farmers should be free to choose the best solution or combination of solutions to suit their individual requirements. To drive efficiency, the industry and Teagasc require access to high quality farm performance data, which enables sensible decision making on priority areas for industry development as well as enabling discussion around individual farm benchmarking and cross-farm comparison. In the modern world this means getting data into web-based databases as efficiently as possible. It is important that Teagasc is allowed to develop these technologies further to increase the competitiveness of Irish agriculture.
Teagasc has an obligation to provide the best research, advisory and education services to Irish agriculture and the application of modern ICT is critical in achieving this obligation. That is in line with Government policy. Teagasc has a long history in the development of ICT software applications to be used in Irish agriculture, and farm computing is moving from stand-alone computer packages to web-based databases, which is enabling data sharing and informed decision making through tools like the Teagasc e-profit monitor.
Teagasc has in the past and will in the future collaborate with commercial software companies in the development of their software and facilitate the development of interfaces to our software.
Teagasc, like any other organisation, provides services to a large client base and should be able to use the best products to deliver our service in an efficient manner. Again, this is in line with Government policy. It is critical that industry good databases are managed, validated and secured by industry good organisations for the maximum benefit of Irish farmers. I thank the committee for its time and interest.
Mr. Seán Coughlan:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation. I welcome the opportunity to provide some information to the committee on the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, and its role in the agriculture industry. I shall briefly provide information on the functions of ICBF and how technology is used by the organisation.
ICBF was established in 1998 as a non-profit industry good and non-State body. It followed many years of discussion around how the Irish cattle breeding industry might be better organised to remove duplication and increase the rate of genetic gain in our cattle. It is a unique organisation, with its shareholders combining the farm organisations of the IFA and ICMSA, milk recording organisations and artificial insemination organisations - many of which originated from the traditional dairy co-operative structure - along with the dairy and beef breed associations. Thus it is owned, one way or another, by farmers. It provides services, directly and indirectly to all farmers in Ireland. It is a genuine example of the potential of a co-operative type infrastructure when operated to its full capability.
ICBF created a database to provide the information needed for effective cattle breeding decisions at all levels in the industry. The most difficult aspect of any database is establishing a timely flow of clean, accurate and comprehensive data. One of the key features of the ICBF database infrastructure is the removal of duplication in data collection. For example, in 1998, a dairy farmer involved in milk recording and herd-book registrations would have to communicate on five occasions about a single calving event. By 2002, with the introduction of ICBF animal events, only one notification of that event was required to satisfy all cattle breeding requirements. The measure has saved costs, increased data accuracy, increased farmer participation and made cattle breeding information more relevant and valuable to all Irish farmers.
ICBF has an annual budget in the region of €5 million. In broad terms, our income comes in the form of a tag contribution from farmers, which accounts for 20%, a Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine operating grant, which accounts for 20% and which covers the cost of activities the ICBF took over from the Department, service income, which is about 40%, and the national development plan capital grant, which accounts for the remaining 20%. ICBF provides employment to 35 people and is based in rural west Cork. It also provides a contract for a further 35 people in the provision of weight recording and linear scoring services throughout rural Ireland.
I shall outline the functions of ICBF. First, it generates genetic evaluations or breeding values for animals based on the ancestry and performance data available nationally and internationally. It is licensed by the Department to generate national genetic evaluations. Genetic evaluations can identify breeding lines that give more output for meat, as an example, and for the same level of inputs such as feed. The outcome of the process is a breeding index for an animal expressed in euro which farmers can use to make breeding decisions. All 80,000 breeding herds nationally benefit from these evaluations.
Second, to facilitate the generation of genetic evaluations, ICBF collects animal performance data from a wide variety of sources, including calf registration and animal movement data in conjunction with the Department's systems, artificial insemination data, milk recording data, slaughter data, mart data, DNA or genomic data, health data in the form of laboratory results and on-farm data, and on-farm performance data, which will become increasingly important as the focus switches to cost of production profit traits.
Third, ICBF plays a central role in beef and dairy breeding schemes. These schemes identify the sires that will deliver a maximum genetic gain to the commercial herds. It will ensure the next generation of livestock are more profitable than the previous generation.
Fourth, the ICBF engages with cattle breeders across the country, directly and indirectly, delivering breeding information so that farmers can make profitable breeding decisions at the farm level. This happens in the following number of ways. Bull proofs are made available to the breeding organisations, such as artificial insemination companies, through a publicly available bull search which has more than one million searches per year; HerdPlus, ICBF's breeding information service, provides farmers with a mixture of paper based and web based tools for making informed breeding decisions; and the ICBF engages with stakeholders to increase awareness of the value of using breeding information to increase profitability at farm level.
The ICBF is not in the software business. It generates and distributes breeding information that farmers can use to make profitable breeding decisions. It communicates that information using a variety of technologies, but the bulk of engagement with farmers is still via paper. The need to communicate using the Internet is also critical, and in this day and age it is a basic requirement for any organisation. One of the key challenges for the ICBF is to get the wider farming population to engage with the breeding information and realise it has a key role to play in securing the long-term sustainability of farming.
The ICBF's ability to operate efficiently and effectively depends on its ability to utilise technology to its maximum in the capture of data, the calculation of breeding values through genetic evaluations, and the dissemination of the resultant information to commercial farmers for use in their day-to-day breeding decisions. The ICBF has always worked constructively with the farm management software providers. The backbone of their business was traditionally made up of three elements: electronic calf registration, the electronic herd register, and electronic premium-subsidy management. The ICBF is not involved in any of these areas.
The ICBF provides a start-up file that makes it easier for the software providers to get clients on board. We also provide an ongoing integrated transfer mechanism that allows data from the on-farm software systems to interact with data from a wide variety of sources captured through the national ICBF database. Thus, ICBF has in fact helped the farm management software providers to grow their business over the years. It continues to implement a policy of data sharing and integration.
Many countries are envious of the national resource which is the ICBF infrastructure. This was made clear at the 2012 International Committee for Animal Recording, ICAR, conference in Cork, which attracted in excess of 500 delegates from more than 50 countries. Other countries are grappling with the inefficiencies associated with not having a national industry-owned cattle breeding database operated on a not-for-profit basis. For example, in New Zealand there is significant turmoil and an inability to generate official national genomic evaluations due to the main database not being industry-owned and operated. In the US, various organisations are working together to get a collaboration agreement in place to allow the consolidation of data for genetic evaluation purposes. Ireland has a system in place. In the UK there is no level of integration at a national level in terms of cattle breeding data despite repeated attempts to establish such a structure.
The ICBF is an organisation that caters for the needs of all breeders in Ireland, small and large. It is at the core of the suckler cow welfare scheme which has played a key role over the past five years in sustaining the smaller, less profitable beef farms in the north and west. All those farms would have received technical reports from the ICBF, helping to identify areas which can be focused on to improve profitability. The ICBF plays a role in ensuring the traditional family farm can remain sustainable in the future.
The ICBF database is facilitating a significant amount of all-island research on the breeding end and in our work with Animal Health Ireland, AHI. The AHI uses the ICBF database as the backbone for the roll-out of its programmes. The ICBF has played a key role in the bovine disease eradication scheme which will be rolled out to all 80,000 breeding herds in 2013. This maximises the return on investment the State has made through various governments since 1998.
The ICBF has worked closely with Teagasc since its inception and collaboration continues to provide a huge benefit to the agri-industry in Ireland. It ensures a maximum synergy of resources. Advisers are in a position to give better quality advice in a more efficient and effective manner than would be possible without the link-up. This is especially so in the area of discussion groups that provide a forum for farms of all sizes to participate in a learning environment with peers to help sustain their businesses. Likewise, the ICBF relies heavily on Teagasc to get the better breeding message to farmers.
The ICBF is helping to lead the smart economy with regard to agriculture and delivers real economic benefits at the level of family farms of all sizes throughout the country. In 2009, Ireland was the first country in Europe and the second in the world to deliver genomic evaluations to its farmers. The ICBF, along with the breeding industry stakeholders, has played a key role in delivering more than €600 million of genetic gain to the Irish agri-industry since 2002. The work the ICBF does also plays a key role in helping to deliver the targets in the Food Harvest 2020 programme. The ICBF, along with the wider industry, has a key role in securing the ongoing viability of family farms in rural Ireland.
I thank the representatives from Teagasc and the ICBF for coming here and giving two excellent and informative presentations. The biggest challenge we face is to support what we have and try to build on the Food Harvest 2020 objectives.
While targets are important, the evaluation of those targets is equally important. The resource outlined is helpful from a farming point of view in evaluating the targets and ensuring we are in a position, as a country, to meet and surpass the targets. The presentation was excellent and leaves few questions to be asked. From the point of view of resources and meeting the Food Harvest 2020 target, I would like to clarify that some 35 employees are employed directly and 35 are employed indirectly in other parts of the country. Is that correct?
The ICBF is funded by the Department and farmers. Are resources an issue in the current economic climate for the coming five years when we are trying to achieve the Food Harvest 2020 targets? What about the work of the ICBF in that regard?
I am delighted to see co-operation. When a company such as the ICBF carries out the work, the efficiencies and economies of scale cannot be compared with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It is an effective and efficient service, dealing with 80,000 herds with only 70 employees. That says a lot about it. Well done.
With regard to the work of Teagasc, which is critical to the future of the agricultural sector, the courses throughout the country show agriculture is the new area to be in. A few years ago, it was the construction sector and now it is the agriculture and agrifood industries. The ICT area is very important for the transformation to the new range of technology. If young farmers are to be attracted to the industry, the learning they must undertake is critical. Although many Teagasc courses are full, is there potential to develop additional courses and to examine refresher courses for existing farmers and those who may not want to go back to college full-time but who may want to improve their ICT and e-mail skills in order that they can deal with the Department using the Internet rather than snail mail? Mr. Coughlan mentioned that most communication with farmers is by letter, which is inefficient and costly. If there is a way to become more efficient, it is through e-mail. If one talks to a farmer of a certain age, however, the last thing he wants to talk about is a computer course or an ICT course. This should be examined.
The suckler cow welfare scheme, which Mr. Coughlan mentioned, was launched in 2008. What is its importance and what are the views and thoughts of the witnesses in terms of securing moneys under that scheme and ring-fencing the budget? What is its importance in hitting the targets under Food Harvest 2020?
I have a number of brief observations. How many farmers access the HerdPlus service each month or have done so in the recent past? Is an accurate figure available? Are there any issues with regard to competition in the sector? Is there a potential conflict of interest with other organisations providing similar services or is it a case of comparing apples and oranges? What is the difference? Organisations appearing before the committee expressed the opinion that the ICBF was encroaching on their territory. Is that a major issue or is the ICBF providing a different service?
I thank the witnesses for their presentations, which were interesting. We could have sat and listened for longer. Mr. Coughlan talked about genomic evaluations for farmers and his desire to ensure the continuation of the small-scale farmer and the traditional farm. Could these changes have the opposite effect? In being so organised and technologically savvy, do we run the risk of emerging with only large farms? The data and the capacity to gather data exist, which inadvertently drives us towards a factory farm landscape.
Does Dr. Kelly's organisation have the capacity to sell its capabilities? Could other organisations or companies hire the ICBF for its expertise?
Is broadband an issue? Many people feel pressure in this regard. There will always be farmers who are reluctant to take part because they see it as a step too far. Have the witnesses targeted the farmers for whom the prospect of computers and technology is a step too far? Has such targeting been unnecessary? The witnesses are very successful but there are always some obstacles in the path.
Mr. Seán Coughlan:
I will respond to Senator Ó Domhnaill's question on resources. Resources continue to be a challenge and the ICBF must respond to increasing demands in trying to fulfil its role in Food Harvest 2020. The Department, along with the wider industry, has been very supportive over the years in helping us, but resources continue to be an issue. We have more and more demands and we run a lean organisation. Nevertheless, the calls on us are increasing. Genomic evaluation and cattle breeding technologies are exploding and it is a significant challenge to keep up with it. However, it is important to keep up if we are to deliver on our role in the 2020 Food Harvest targets.
Senator Ó Domhnaill referred to the suckler cow welfare scheme. From the ICBF perspective, the scheme has provided the backbone of our ability to push on from a beef breeding point of view. The slides in my presentation show that the trends in genetic gain on the dairy and beef sides are remarkably different. We have not had the same progress on the beef side as on the dairy side. The suckler cow welfare scheme has been the engine allowing us to get that in place. A group chaired by my colleague, Mr. Michael Doran, has set up a new Eurostar genetic evaluation infrastructure for beef and it is ready to take off. From the ICBF perspective, it is critical to maintain the data flow that has underpinned the suckler cow welfare scheme.
Dr. Tom Kelly:
Regarding the Senator's question on courses, all students who participate in our level 5 and level 6 programmes undergo significant training on the Internet. I can provide an example of the training manual used. The manual is also rolled out to adult farmers.
We use the same material. The options on the websites and in online technology in which people are interested may be quite different from what the younger audience want. People want to be able to use the online services that are available in the Department to register calves, get compliance certificates for the movement of animals and engage with online banking. We have set up a template in a booklet which is now on its third publication. The initial version was in the early 2000s as the Internet started to be rolled out, but it is becoming quite widely used. We see a demand from farmers who are participating in discussion groups and participating in the DEP and BTAP who want to use the suckler cow welfare scheme as well. They want to access online services and have less paperwork.
Mr. Andrew Cromie:
It is timely that Mr. Coughlan has put up the slide with the graph. I draw members attention to the purple line. The animal events and cattle breeding database was established in 2002, as mentioned in Mr. Coughlan's presentation. At that time we had a major increase in the number of herds involved in cattle breeding, increasing from a few thousand herds to 15,000 dairy herds. The sire recorded animals in the cattle breeding database is 13 million to 14 million. We have a database of animals with ancestry, which is key for genetic gain, and we have the phenotypic records which cover milk, beef, female fertility and all the traits of economic importance. That has allowed us, together with Teagasc and its research team, in particular Dr. Pat Dillon's group, to generate genomic evaluations. Genomic evaluations are generated through taking the DNA of known animal sires, looking at their progeny evaluations and correlating them with the identification of genes of most value to develop predictions in order that one can subsequently genotype any animal and get a genomic evaluation.
As Mr. Coughlan alluded, we were the second country in the world to produce genomic evaluations in 2009. The data in the database have allowed us reach that point. As a consequence, 68,000 Irish farmers have an opportunity to access genomic evaluations. Every farmer has that opportunity, not just large or small ones. Senator O'Keeffe queried whether, over time, it will be larger farmers only who will have access to genomic evaluations. I suggest the answer is "no".
With the permission of the Chair, I wish to clarify what I meant. Given the information is available and it is such a good tool, what I am asking is not whether smaller farmers have access but whether it is the case that larger farmers can exploit it better, derive greater benefit from it and can therefore grow, and whether this inadvertently is driving the creation of large farms.
Mr. Andrew Cromie:
As with any sector, there are issues of economies of scale. Larger farms that are bringing replacements back into their dairy herds and beef herds that are breeding their own replacements will, by the use of genomics, be able to identify the sorts of animals they should be bringing onto their farms without having to carry the high cost of bringing in a wrong animal. I am talking about the suckler farmer who has 15 cows and is reliant on every one of those cows to have a calving every year. Two wrong cows with no calving will have a significant impact on his profitability. In that case, genomics is giving that farmer an even larger percentage benefit.
From the overall industry perspective and where it is positioning us in terms of Food Harvest 2020, we are now making levels of genetic gain in the dairy herd which are unparalleled. That is a consequence of the database, Gene Ireland and Genomics. We have every opportunity to repeat in the beef herd what we have achieved in the dairy herd.
On the issue of the suckler cow welfare scheme raised by Senator Ó Domhnaill, the scheme is giving us the infrastructure in beef that we have enjoyed in dairying. We will move rapidly into the beef sector the thinking and the technologies we have developed in dairying, again working with the group in Teagasc to deliver the same potential benefits in beef, which are of the order of hundreds of millions of euro in increased profits.
Is the smaller farmer still more vulnerable? Given that the ICBF has achieved so much in terms of productivity and one cannot stop investment in technology, what can the federation do for the smaller farmer, notwithstanding the niche benefit of giving him or her extra information?
Mr. Seán Coughlan:
As Dr. Cromie pointed out, the technology is available to the smaller farmer and, potentially, he can use it more to his or her benefit than the larger farmer. The key challenge is getting that message out to the smaller farmers because sometimes they are a little slower to engage or they have other enterprises to try to supplement their farming income. The suckler cow welfare scheme allows all the suckler farmers, small and large, to engage, and that gives us communication with what, on the beef side, are mostly smaller farms. Genomics will start coming in on the beef side and that message will be key. The challenge is to get that message out to farmers through working closely with our colleagues in Teagasc, which has the extensification system, and engaging with the industry, whether at marts, meat factories, through Teagasc advisers, in the Irish Farmers' Journal or whatever. The technology is available to the smaller farmers. The challenge is to get that message out, and we are committed to doing what we can to achieve it. The key point is that the genetic gain is on a profit per animal basis. If this year's animal is €20 more profitable, the real benefit to the national economy will be by ensuring all 2 million animals born every year are €20 more profitable, which will give us €40 million. If only the top quarter is engaged, only a quarter of the benefit will accrue to the economy. It is critical we engage with all farmers, small and large.
Dr. Tom Kelly:
I will take up that last point Mr. Coughlan made. The average size of a sucker herd is 15 cows. We are looking at that population. One of the big advantages of HerdPlus and the triangular relationship between Teagasc, farmers and the ICBF is that, even if a farmer has very little understanding of what these indices, measures and reports mean, the Teagasc adviser who will advise the farmer has access to the information, with the farmer's permission. As I stated in my presentation, it is a major step forward for a national extension service such as ourselves to be able to add value to the existing information. The day has gone when advisers went out to preach practice to farmers. It is very much a case of pointing out to them that, benchmarked against other farmers, they are not doing too badly or they are doing quite badly and, to improve, they need to concentrate on two or three things. If one can put the farmer's own data in front of them, there is very little for them to deny.
Their own figures will show their true situation.
Mr. Seán Coughlan:
Deputy Deering's first question was about engagement with HerdPlus. The key point is to remove this perception that HerdPlus is a piece of software. HerdPlus is a package of breeding information relating to any given farmer's herd. It benchmarks that information, perhaps within a discussion group or nationally. Farmers engaging with HerdPlus means they are engaging with a combination of paper and web-based tools to assist them in making breeding decisions. The information we communicate to the farmers is the key point, whether by web or by paper means. These are just different mechanisms of communication. Engagement with HerdPlus is an ongoing process throughout the year. For example, when a dairy or beef farmer goes to a discussion group meeting and the discussion group facilitator uses a discussion group report which contains breeding information, that farmer is engaging with HerdPlus and with the information. It does not matter whether the information is delivered on paper, by the web or by text message. The focus of ICBF and HerdPlus is on breeding information.
On Deputy Deering's second question about competition or collaboration or otherwise within the sector, I will ask our chairman, Mr. John O'Sullivan, who is a dairy farmer, to comment.
Mr. John O'Sullivan:
In response to Deputy Deering's question, I may best answer it by describing my experience over the years. Our family milks a herd of dairy cows just north of Cork city. We have a big emphasis on breeding because we are members of the Irish Holstein Friesian Association. At the time of the advent of ICBF, along with our national obligation to register the birth of every calf with the Department, as members of the herd book we had to register the birth of every calf with the breed society herd book which is located in Rickmansworth in Herefordshire in England. The association has 3,000 members and we were sending a registration fee of £10, as it was at the time, for up to 100,000 calves. This money was going over to Rickmansworth. Everyone engaged in that exercise was employed in the UK. With the advent of the database, we saw an opportunity to bring home this business and to have our own herd book in this country to provide services to our members. I was the chairman of the association at the time. We employed just one liaison officer to work with the 3,000 members and to solve any issues arising between the Irish breeder and the organisation in the UK. As a result, we left the UK parent organisation in 2002. We bought our own office in Clonakilty. The organisation now employs 13 full-time employees. The charge is €13 per registration. At this stage this is considerably less than the £10 we were sending to the UK at the time. That €13 per registration stays here in Ireland. The 13 full-time employees are not ICBF employees but without the benefit of the integrated database, our organisation would not be in a position to support having a herd book here.
Similarly, we are involved in breeding and it is essential to measure the performance of our animals. The milk is recorded monthly. A milk recorder comes from our milk recording organisation, takes a milk sample and a print-out from the on-farm computer for the amount of milk from the individual cow. The big advantage from the point of view of the milk recording organisation is that the information collected by the recorder and the resultant analysis of the milk sample is entered in the database which calculates the up-to-date milk yields and constituents for each individual animal. I receive that report electronically from the database to my Kingswood herd programme. That information is then retained on the Kingswood programme on my farm computer on my desk and is instantly accessible.
We calve a lot of cows in the autumn because we supply the liquid milk business. We have to make decisions with regard to which animals to use on our cows in three weeks' time, for example, when we start the insemination programme. A big advantage of the ICBF database is that it provides access to bulls from all over the world who have been progeny tested in Ireland, the UK, the United States, New Zealand and Czechoslovakia, for example. I can key in the name of a bull on the database. With ICBF's involvement with an international organisation called Interbull, I can have information on how that bull's progeny could be expected to perform in Ireland. I can then make an immediate direct comparison between the performance of that bull and any other bull I am thinking of using.
I had the responsibility of doing the paperwork for the pedigree animals on our farm since I was 14 years of age. The difference between how it was done when I was 14 to how it is done now is unimaginable. I go to different parts of the world because of my interest in cattle breeding. No matter where I go, there is no system anywhere else around the world that can compare with what we have here. As a farmer I am very proud of the fact that our organisation, the Holstein Friesian Association, put a substantial sum of money as a shareholding into this organisation. My dairy co-operative is a shareholder. I am a member of the IFA and it put money into it. We farmers are really proud of this organisation which we have financed and set up. It is delivering for farmers. We get a very small percentage of our annual budget from the Government to do work that was previously government work and which would cost multiples of our costs if it were still government work.
In response to Deputy Deering's question about competition, I answer by saying there is no competition but rather there is co-operation and significant efficiency and benefits delivered to all of us as dairy farmers. As chairman of this organisation, I know I can say this organisation is delivering enormously for farmers. If anything were to happen to jeopardise the work of this organisation, there would be a lot of disaffection among farmers.
I thank the delegates for their attendance. I work with Teagasc on tillage and I concur that its work ethic and approach is very professional. Farmers are only now beginning to come to terms with using a web-based as opposed to a hands-on approach. Farmers love the interactive approach in general. I was not surprised when a web-based sales programme did not work because I know farmers like to rub cattle and to look at them. That is the farming tradition although it may not always remain so. A two-tier system exists. People like myself remember when computers were not in use but we have embraced them and there are others who will not bother with them. We need to ensure the great work done by ICBF has a beginner's guide for users because some people are just starting out with the system.
Our guests must be flexible and move with them.
I have no difficulty with large farms. In fact, I am all in favour of them. We must, for many reasons, protect large farmers. In the first instance, these individuals are very exposed. I have farmed extensively in my time and I am aware that issues arise in the context of land fragmentation, access to finance and land, variable weather conditions, land quality, availability of supports and so on. There is a great deal to consider for those who own large farms and if they get wrong any of the matters to which I refer, they will end up going out of business. This is because they can be exposed to such a large degree.
We may need to consider taking a more long-term approach, particularly in the context of educating students from second level onwards. I am not stating an intensive course should be put in place, but there is a need for students to be aware of the importance of agriculture. It should not be a revelation for them when they reach their 20s. Students must be made aware of what is happening. Mobile phone applications are huge and being embraced by the young. Cork Institute of Technology is the first third level institution to offer a degree in cloud computing. This is of interest to everyone, including farmers. We need to ensure young people are exposed to agriculture early in order that their creative knowledge can be harnessed. It would be great to have people involved in farming who also have an aptitude for computers. It is these individuals who will ensure computer programming follows in the direction in which our guests are moving.
When I entered the biochemistry department in UCC in 1987, PCR was only just coming into vogue. Those involved in the area were only evaluating the genome at the time. As our guests indicated, the Internet only began to have an impact in the early 2000s. It took these two major things which we now take for granted to come together to make the work to which our guests refer possible. It is only 2012, which shows how matters have developed in a short period. One of our guests referred to the massive changes that had occurred during his lifetime. He is absolutely correct in that regard. However, the pace of change has really quickened in the past 15 years. The challenge we face lies in looking forward to the next ten years and deciding the direction we wish to take. It is incumbent on Teagasc and others to begin putting a ten year plan in place. They must be brave and bold in this regard and replicate what was done in respect of Food Harvest 2020. They must ask what they want to see happening with their databases and so on in the future. Our guests may only have aspirations now, but they can be damn sure that there is some bright young person out there who will make them become a reality.
I cannot praise our guests enough in this matter, particularly as this is the direction in which farming is moving. People refer to small and large farmers. Smaller farmers know their properties like the backs of their hands and can be completely accurate when they use their fertiliser spreaders in particular fields. Consider the position of a farmer who owns 1,000 acres and may never have seen some of his or her fields before. A GPS system will ensure he or she can achieve the same accuracy as his or her smaller counterpart. What we are seeking to do is encourage attention to detail. If they continue to be supported, Teagasc's and the ICBF's programmes will ensure large-scale micromanagement will continue. If small farmers want to become large farmers, there is nothing wrong with this. We must ensure, however, that courses are provided in order that they might become involved. Some small farmers are very clever in matters such as those to which I refer and they have more time on their hands than their larger counterparts. I would not always equate being a small farmer with not being tuned in.
We should not be recording data just for the sake of doing so. A metric or performance-driven approach should apply. It is great that, as our guests have indicated, the approach in this matter is led by farmers. If that remains the case, it will be successful. I have used certain agricultural machines and after an hour I was able to state they were designed by farmers. However, I have used others which most certainly were not designed by them. That was because they were not practical in their layouts and their displays were not ergonomic, among other things.
Our guests must realise this is only the beginning. I will be interested in seeing how matters develop in the future.
I thank both of our guests for their presentations. Many of the matters to which I wish to refer in the context of IT skills and so forth have been dealt with. As Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill noted, agriculture has suddenly become popular and sexy again. Huge numbers of young people are trying to gain entry to agricultural colleges and I understand there was a deficiency of approximately 300 places this year. How many of the young people to whom I refer took up the option of pursuing the course on the green certificate online when they could not obtain entry to one of the colleges?
On knowledge transfers and matters of that nature, how is Teagasc dealing with people with learning difficulties? I refer to those with Asperger's syndrome, dyslexia and other conditions. How does Teagasc assist these individuals who can experience difficulties in completing forms required by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine? Is there a programme in place to deal with them?
I thank our guests for their presentations. I pursued the course on the green certificate online. In that context, does the ICBF have a role in devising the course? I am aware that Teagasc has an involvement, but does the ICBF also contribute? I congratulate it on the employment it has created since its establishment in 1997 and commencement of operations in 1998. Who was responsible for establishing the organisation? Mr. O'Sullivan has outlined his role, but were there others involved? He may or may not wish to divulge this information, but what is the nature of the shareholding in the ICBF? Is any of the shareholders in the ICBF a State entity? I ask this question because at previous meetings allegations were made about interference by State entities in the market. I would like the position to be clarified.
Mr. John O'Sullivan:
With the introduction in 1996 of the compulsory one tag one animal identification system, that is, the plastic tags which it is compulsory to attach to each animal at birth, a number of people in the agriculture industry saw an opportunity. It was the view that one tag would be for the animal's lifetime and that we could associate every activity relating to said animal to its tag. It was also the view that all information on the animal could be put on a database. However, there was no such database. A number of farmers and people from farming organisations came together and took a decision to establish a body to deal with this matter. They agreed to put an interim board in place and the group advertised for a chief executive. Mr. Coughlan's predecessor, Dr. Brian Wickham, who had been involved in creating the database in New Zealand, was recruited to set about establishing the ICBF. It was through Dr. Wickham's work that shareholdings, who should be involved and so on, were decided upon. Mr. Coughlan will comment on the nature of the shareholding.
Mr. Seán Coughlan:
The shareholding is held by a number of parties. Some 18% of the shares are owned by the artificial insemination companies, 18% are owned by the milk recording organisations and 18% are owned by the beef and dairy breeding associations. That gives a total of 54%. The other 46% of the shares are owned by farmers directly. These shares are held in trust by the IFA and the ICMSA. There is no State involvement in the ownership of the ICBF. It is a non-profit, fully private entity. One official from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine sits on the board. This is because we are licensed by the Department.
We receive funding from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to carry out roles, and, under EU law, it is obliged to provide such funding. We undertake those roles under licence from the Department and in that context the Department plays a role on the board of the ICBF. I clarify that we are not a State owned company; the State does not own any part of the ICBF. It is a private non-profit entity.
Dr. Tom Kelly:
I will answer Deputy McNamara's question on the ICBF and the green cert. Our green cert or level 5 and 6 FETAC approved courses are guided by an education forum, on which there is farmer representation but, as I recall, no direct ICBF representation. We have significant content in the programmes, particularly the green cert programmes, in terms of the use of the reports generated through the ICBF and in terms of breeding. Reflecting Deputy Barry's comments, we consider this to be at the cutting edge of breeding and of genetic improvement and it is also at the cutting edge of important farm management information and the use of it by farmers to make better decisions. We justify it on that basis.
On Senator Pat O'Neill's question on student numbers and student intake, we have succeeded in having a take up of in excess of 1,500 new students across all our colleges and local option courses this year. A little more than half of those were college level entry at level 5 and level 6 and the remainder are taking part-time and online courses. We realise we are struggling to keep up with the requirement. I do not believe 300 people were left out of the loop this year in terms of training options. We probably would have reduced that to somewhat fewer than 50. Our obligation is to try to fit those in if they want to take up a part-time or online course during the year. If not, we try to prioritise them and get them into a course in a college starting next September if that is their wish. We have achieved in terms of the intakes into the colleges. We have around 140 additional places in our colleges this year, which was a major help when we came to address what looked like being a 300 or so deficit at the start of the year. The part-time courses that are run at local centres are very attractive to people who can work part-time or farm at home and participate in the programme.
On the specific question on people with learning difficulties, we reserve a percentage of places, 3% to 5% I understand are the figures, for those people in our colleges. Normally we would take in 3% of people with learning difficulties who qualify under learning support and they are prioritised above other students but it is competitive. If ten people apply and we only three places, we have to cut our cloth to measure as little if we have to refuse students. There is the option that they would get into another college but not the college they sought to enter.
Dr. Tom Kelly:
Anyone who walks through the door into a Teagasc office will find nobody is very interested in what kind of a leaving certificate the person got or what qualification the person has. The support we provide is that we attempt to explain to them some of the complex terms and conditions associated with schemes and leave them with a clear idea of what is needed when they go home. We provide a one to one support system for our clients at our offices and through the farm visits, which is a service that is available. Advisers know the people in their community. They know people who may have this type of difficulty, particularly when is it time for submitting the single farm payment application. There is always a number of people whom an adviser will need to prompt in terms of their applications and so forth.
I appreciate that and that is wonderful but Teagasc has not provided special training in this respect. There are special needs assistants in the education sector. None of the Teagasc instructors have received specific training on how to deal with people with these problems.
It is something Teagasc should consider. While funding is a problem at present, this issue is coming more to the fore. It is not a problem for young people coming into agricultural college because many people who had a difficulty would have been diagnosed. There are many farmers in their 40s, 50s and 60s who went through the education system and were told that they were no use and their difficulty was not diagnosed until later in life and now they face a challenge in dealing with the Department and filling in forms. Teagasc should examine this problem. Some people consider this difficulty is a private matter and they do not want it to be known, but if Teagasc was to introduce a helpline that would be helpful because this is an issue.
Mr. Michael Doran:
I will make a few general points and deal with some of the points that were raised. I clarify that I wear a few hats and there were some jokes shared about that before I came into the meeting. I also chair the Teagasc beef stakeholder group in Grange because I am passionate about the industry. I spent four years at a national livestock chairman in the IFA. During that time I would have fought very hard for the ICBF, Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to make more facilities available to farmers to free up the amount of time they spend inputting data into various different elements and to get the data back to farmers in a manner that would help them farm level. A number of Deputies and Senators raised the issue of data. The data originates on farms in the first place in that it is a farmer who inputs it. Therefore, it is farmers' data and I strongly believe they have an entitlement to get the best use out of it and it should be got back to them in a manner that is useful to them.
Originally I would have put a lot of pressure on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine regarding agfood, the registration of calves online, and the herd register. From the outset my view on the herd register, with which some people would differ, is that it was only been used as a means to penalise if they had an inspection at farm level. That was the only use I could see being made of it. My recollection was that we were promised at the start that when the national database was up and running correctly there would be no need for the herd register at farm level, the blue book that was being filled in. Many farmers would have got packages on the farm to deal with the herd register element at the start, but many people could not afford it or were not computer literate. We have got to the stage now where farmers can register calves and notify their movements on line. They can do it on a smartphone, they do not need to do it on a computer. The herd register is available online to farmers. It is a matter of moving with the times and that development is helpful.
Access to agfood has been great from a farmer's point of view and it has removed some of the paperwork that was involved. It has been a major saving to the Department. With every calf that is registered online there is less of a manual input required by the Department and less postage involved. The same applies to the suckler cow welfare scheme, which was raised by a number of members. There is a difference of approximately €10 in the cost of administering that scheme online as against through the paper format
It was set up initially to benefit the farmer but the knock-on effect is the genetic evaluations that have been possible because of the information coming through the system as a result of the suckler cow welfare scheme. As a farmer I urge the members to apply as much pressure as possible for the maintaining of that scheme, the five year period for which is due to expire at the end of the year. In terms of the benefit of that scheme, especially in regard to Food Harvest 2020, from a beef perspective we must see that data continue to roll out. It is crucial that we try to capture that data in the future without losing the benefits we have seen.
From a Teagasc point of view, I can sometimes be critical of Teagasc from the point of view that there is not more work done with students on the area of technology. It has been raised here also. In terms of grass measuring, Teagasc pioneered that, at least from an Irish point of view, and put the package together, including the profit monitor and so on, but I take one or two students every year and it amazes me that some of them are good at it and want to take it on. That is why I welcomed Deputy Barry's point on a ten-year plan. We should ensure that every student that comes through the system is at least computer literate and that by the time they leave the agriculture college they are able to use the technologies available. Do we want to go back to the time of the analogue phone in the office? Mobile phones have evolved into smartphones. Technology is allowing us to drive forward and to become more sustainable and focused as farmers. It is crucial for us to examine how we can move that technology on to be of further benefit to us as farmers and identify the areas where there are deficits that we could look to improve.
The BTAP programme for beef farmers started this year and one of the conditions of that was people had to sign up and become a member of HerdPlus. I support making it compulsory for farmers who were in the BTAP programme to be signed up to HerdPlus for a number of reasons. First, there is an adviser, whether it is a Teagasc adviser or a private planner, who deals with it and, second, the amount of information available for a particular farm because all this information is in a computer. All HerdPlus does is put it together to give that data back out to allow people make decisions on it.
The first year I joined HerdPlus I got a report stating I had a calving interval of 424 days. I rubbished it because I also have an on-farm package. I told HerdPlus that could not be the case because my herd was far better than that. The second year I got it HerdPlus said I had a 421-day calving interval. On further analysing it with a Teagasc adviser I realised I was rolling cows over, so to speak, from the spring to the autumn calving and from autumn calving to spring calving. This year I managed to get it down to 372 days. That is an extra calf for every seven or eight cows on the farm as a result of that one piece of information becoming available. We need to get more from the information we put in on registering calves. That is the only bit of information a farmer puts in. The rest comes from factories, marts and various other elements. We must see what more information we can get to help us, first, reach our Food Harvest 2020 targets and, second, to determine if we can exceed those because there is a growing demand for food and we should examine how we can drive that on further, and from a technology point of view also.
Those are the points I wanted to make. I have looked at a number of websites and many other people are making packages available free of charge be it the Irish Farmers' Association through its i-Farm or the Irish Farmers' Journal. Many people are putting cash flow planners and various things on websites. Those tools are available to farmers. The more penetration we can get of that, the more advances we can make as farmers in the industry as a whole.
I forgot to ask this question of Mr. Coughlan. Regarding all this data to be put into the system, whether from HerdPlus or through any other system, what protections are in place in terms of data protection in regard to these systems? Can anybody get into them and see what I am doing as an individual farmer? Is that information protected? In terms of data protection, how does it work in regard to individual farms?
Mr. Seán Coughlan:
The Senator raises an important question. There is full data protection. The farmer signs a form to give access to his data from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the ICBF, and that is the foundation on which everything else is built. Any organisation that needs to access that farmer's data has to get a specific authorisation, either electronically or on paper. Whether access is needed by a milk recording organisation, an AI company, a breed association or a Teagasc adviser, that access must be specifically authorised by the farmer, and we control that at the database level. Any farmer can turn on or off access to his detailed farm information at any time.
I thank Mr. Coughlan for clarifying what is an important point. I thank the ICBF and the Teagasc representatives. They may be aware that the invitation was sent to them on foot of contributions made by members of the private farm software companies who raised a point which has not been addressed directly here. Nobody argues about the value of gathering the information. I am a client of Teagasc, registered with the ICBF and a client of one of the companies and therefore I must be careful about what I say here but I understand how the system works.
Dr. Kelly said that the DairyMIS survey was a development of what would now be considered a crude version of software but it was probably more challenging at the time than much of what has come through now. In terms of finding through collaboration and a sharing of effort the most cost efficient way of gathering information and developing software product the question for Teagasc in particular, where I would imagine resources are tight, is whether there is a more cost-effective way of doing that in collaboration with some of the private software development companies which cover a multitude of types of software development, not just agri-software. There are software builders who can do it, and Teagasc has had to outsource some of its roles. Is it more cost-effective for it to do that? Would it put pressure on its budgets to do it? That is the general context of some of the concerns raised here on the previous occasion and it is only fair, in order to have a full discussion, that this point is raised. Does anybody want to answer that question?
Dr. Tom Kelly:
From the Teagasc perspective we have worked with the software companies. The two represented here are just two. We use software in the pig industry. The pig advisers use PiGIS, which is a commercial software. On the tillage front some of our bigger tillage farmers have signed up with a non-Irish company which has an excellent tillage product. It is very suitable for large tillage farms and their advisers have no hesitation in advising farmers to use farm software where they can demonstrate the need for and value of it.
We do not want to be tied to a particular software. Dr. Dillon might comment on that because some of the criticisms made against us is that we should not exclude software companies in, say, the development of a new national database for a particular area in the same way the ICBF has done for breeding, whether that is for grass, soils and so on where we have existing databases. Mr. Dillon might wish to come in on that.
Dr. Pat Dillon:
We see databases being critical in the future. We must be aware that they are owned by Irish farmers and are for the good of Irish farmers. We have the example of the ICBF database in terms of genetic evaluation on the animal side.
An example is the ICBF database on the genetic evaluation of animals. We envisage the development of a similar database for grass cultivar evaluation. The scientific analysis suggests that grass cultivar evaluation should be done on farms, not in small manicured plots. We need to be able to develop technologies in the same way as those on the animal side, bearing in mind that grass comprises our competitive advantage and represents an area in which we can make big breaks. It is a question of developing a database to select cultivars that offer high performance under Irish systems, taking into consideration soil type, location quality and persistence. It is critical for the industry to put a purely economic value on this as there are big gains to be made. I am very positive after the discussion some days ago. We need to drive on. I have no doubt that we are only at the beginning in terms of what the databases can achieve for the industry.
Mr. Andrew Cromie:
Deputy Barry asked about the ten-year plan. Let me give one example. With Teagasc, we are currently establishing a next-generation dairy herd. Mr. Dillon and his team have 200 animals with an average EBI figure of 210, the highest in the country. This herd is important as a national resource because it is ten years ahead of the average. As from next year, when those cows calve down, all of the relevant data thereon will be collected. All the really important economic traits that dairy farmers cannot record routinely will be collected, including data that are difficult to record, such as the incidence of mastitis and lameness, live weights, greenhouse gases and efficiency. With our genetic indices, we need to have the correct data collected and imported into economy-related and profitability indices that will take the industry in the right direction. The last thing we want is to return here in some years only to say we are not making the predicted genetic gain at all because we forgot to measure two or three traits that will have proven to be more important than originally envisaged. This was the case with fertility for many years.
We are working with Teagasc in the context of our ten-year plan. We will also be working in this regard in the beef industry. The key is that new data will be identified that dairy and beef farmers will have to record in the future. We will need to include the data in international databases to generate genetic evaluations and management reports for the industry. With regard to our getting caught up in the discussion on how the data should be entered into the database and who should have what role, I agree entirely with Dr. Kelly that we must avoid precluding ourselves from encountering constraints or otherwise in this area. This is because if something results in a stopping of work on the fundamental material, one effectively stops the industry from growing and driving profitability.
Mr. Seán Coughlan:
My understanding is that the proceedings today are being communicated via a live webcast. This committee is not a software company, yet it is communicating using a technology. Similarly, we are a breeding information company and, although we are not a software company, we communicate via various technologies.
That answer is comprehensive but the questions needed to have been asked and answered. Mr. Doran highlighted a fact I have identified myself, to do with calving intervals. It is a shock to the system when one reads about it first. The first thing one does is put one's head in the sand and go into denial. However, that will not last too long.
I thank the representatives of both organisations for attending and presenting us with a clear picture of how data are gathered, evaluated and disseminated for use. The delegates have given us much information today. I am not quite sure what we will do next but we will certainly consider everything and summarise the outcome of the past two sessions with a view to determining how to proceed.