Under increasing pressure caused by environmental issues and the climate crisis, the agriculture industry has been on a path of transformation. The expansion of innovative agtech has enabled better decision making and increased efficiency on farms. There is no doubt that the industry has made important strides towards more sustainability. But as we take a closer look at practical uses of data and taking action, there is a lot of uncertainty and open questions around the next steps.
To explore the actionable potential of farm data and insights we had a chat with dairy technology expert and Director of Strategic Initiatives at Connecterra, Niels Molenaar. Niels recently attended the Animal Agtech Innovation Summit in San Francisco and hosted a roundtable around the applications of data for sustainability in dairy. He also got a chance to connect with fellow professionals and take in the conversations and topics dominating the industry, so we asked him to share his thoughts and perspectives on challenges, opportunities and the way forward.
Let’s start with a look back at the Animal AgTech Innovation Summit you attended last month. What were your observations based on the interactions you had there?
Niels: Well, I think we can agree that at this point it has become a common conception in the ag industry that it’s important collect and look at farm data, not only because it is a valuable resource for farmers but also for companies across the industry. As a result, there are now many players who focus on capturing this data and making it available. It’s a good first step. However, it was also good to hear questions being raised around why we need more data, what role it plays in sustainability and efficiency, and how it can be used in practice.
For example, some of the largest providers of farm management software talked about the need for more collaboration among the different stakeholders, better communication and standards for sharing the data that is collected on farms. Data needs to be shared, processed and standardized in order to be usable and valuable. And individual companies don’t have the capability to apply artificial intelligence to fill in gaps, find outliers and make predictions. So the industry needs to figure out a way forward in analyzing and applying the data that is being collected to actually impact efficiency and sustainability.
In this context, what would you say are the industry’s biggest challenges in making the data actionable for better sustainability?
Niels: One common problem is that the farm management systems that record this data are often old and use outdated formats. Many are not cloud-based and don’t offer modern sharing functionality—like remote system access for farm advisors and consultants or APIs for real-time data transmission— resulting in data being siloed on farms and not making it past there.
Second, there is the question of data accuracy and reliability. What tools do we have for cleaning and normalizing the data, making it comparable?
Finally, but no less pressing is the issue of data ownership. We hear a lot about making sure farmers are in control of the data, who they share it with and for what purposes. There are also technical issues around that, as most software does not actually support data sharing. And then there’s the more complex question of who owns the value created by companies once they process and use this data?
As the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Connecterra, what is your perspective on potential solutions for these issues? And what initiatives around data applications for sustainability are you currently driving?
Niels: At Connecterra, we’re currently focusing on improving the capabilities of our data platform, so we’re very much active in this area. One of our main goals is to figure out what are the next steps once the data is collected, how can we use it to make improvements in farm operations.
In terms of sustainability, companies focus on different steps within the process: collect and consolidate data, measure the environmental footprint, calculate carbon credits etc. We are looking at next steps, how to make farm data actionable, using it to recommend interventions, support their implementation and measure results. This is where farmers and companies struggle, because it’s not clear what actions need to be taken to make these improvements. I believe this is a space that is becoming more top of mind as the industry is realizing that is what’s lagging behind. Our goal is to look at each individual farm and figure out the best steps to take in that specific context, suggesting interventions to farmers and their advisors.
One example of our initiatives around emissions is the Farm Emissions Optimization model, which predicts an optimized set of interventions that a farmer can implement to reduce emissions, while balancing other key metrics. We worked with the EIT Climate KIC and Impact Forecast to independently assess and validate potential CO2 reductions.
Another thing we’re looking at is correlating farm efficiency and enteric emissions. In this initiative, we evaluate research in the field and aim to model the volume of methane emitted by the cows based on their ration. Other metrics that are considered here would be the impact of growing feed and transporting it, water use, energy use, etc. All of these contribute to the calculation of estimated emissions, which would help recommend the best suited interventions for farms.
What are other opportunities and challenges you see coming up as the industry evolves and how do you see the way forward?
Niels: I think that if you look at the emissions space, there’s a lot of gains to be made just from running a farm more efficiently. Improving efficiency will obviously have a positive impact on ROI. Additionally, our learnings show that using fewer resources to produce more will also result in a more sustainable operation. However, we will quickly get to a point in the future where we’ll need to start thinking about how to support the industry’s evaluation of trade-offs.
What do you mean by trade-offs?
Niels: Let‘s say a farmer can make an adjustment in feed and bring down his emissions by an extra 10%. This feed adjustment means he has to buy soy from a different supplier. However, that soy is more expensive. On one hand, he needs to keep running his business and make a living. On the other hand, he can make a change to make his business more sustainable. So the question will be what is more valuable, the cost to the farmer’s livelihood, or the impact on the environment? Or in a different situation, the trade-off could be between water quality versus air quality. And I think those trade-offs will become an important part of the debate.
And it’s not just impacting the farmer’s business. I think it will also become a very important issue for milk processors, for example, because it’s part of their value chain and therefore their Scope 3 emissions. These decisions will have to be made looking at the farms holistically, where one change will impact many other metrics, and there may be no perfect solution. So it will be interesting to see how such issues are handled moving forward.
Looking forward, what are some next steps you see and possibilities for Connecterra to support the value chain in the future?
Niels: I think we’re firstly focusing on solving some of the data issues that are top of mind across the industry. We’ll be leaning into our platform’s capabilities to provide actionable recommendations based on the data we integrate and enabling customers to monitor progress and measure results. We’re also partnering up with some of the largest enterprises on the market to facilitate collaboration across the value chain. The aim is to provide a platform where the different stakeholders come together, having access to data and tools that enable them to work on shared goals and improve their operations.