Thomas Allison to study the underutilisation of high-tech in the livestock industry in 2016

Thomas Allison  

Study Topic: Understanding why existing high-tech systems designed for the livestock industry are largely underutilised...

I am a 34 year old farmer's son from West Wales. Growing up on a dairy farm with two brothers and a sister, I soon learnt that I was more interested in the tools and equipment used than the agricultural activity itself.  Farming was best left to my brother Marc, Mum & Dad.

In 2003 I returned home, having completed a Masters of Engineering in Electronic & Applied Electrical Engineering at the University of Bath. Although most of my work relates to the dairy industry, I currently provide a range of technical products and services to farmers and rural business in West Wales.  

I have developed and consulted on number of products sold to British farmers & work with manufacturers in France, Germany, America and China. I have also worked on a small number of research projects in the UK and the Netherlands concerning animal welfare.

Since 2012, I provide a consultancy service to VES, a US based firm who specialize in ventilation and lighting and sit on the Dairy Technology Working Group within Wynnstay.

Outside of work, I’m a member of the Future Farmers of Wales and sit on the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society's Young Persons forum. In 2009, I became the youngest ever chairman of Nevern Agricultural Society. Despite best intentions, I am not a sportsman and have very few pursuits. However in my spare time I will occasionally read a newspaper or listen to some eclectic music of varying genres but phenomenal taste.

Finally, I would like to thank all those supporting my Scholarship, not least the Trehane Trust for their sponsorship, the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust, my parents and Marc for their patience and to Wynnstay for their support.

Project Details

Study Topic: Understanding why existing high-tech systems designed for the livestock industry are largely underutilised...

Since the early 2000's, a myriad of “Innovative” products have been launched by a legion of manufacturers. The success or failure of a product can have a transformative effect on the manufacturer; however a successful concept can transform an industry. SCR’s activity monitoring tag transformed the company and brought a bought a paradigm shift in dairy fertility.

As a farmer's son with a degree in engineering, I am inherently interested in any technical product or service that may be of benefit to agriculture. Since returning home in 2003, I have seen dairy farms transform from relatively low-tech operations to high-tech precision orientated business. Or so I thought. 

Every year we would install scores of modern milking machines with automatic identification and associated herd management software onto farms. Frustratingly, the enthusiasm and commitments made on “switch-on days” would always be short lived and within 12 months the system would operate at a fraction of its potential. 

Initially I hypothesized that the equipment manufacturer was to blame and were not delivering a farmer friendly product however it soon became apparent that the “golden bullet” does not exist. The issue, it would seem is independent of brand or function. So, in summary I have chosen this subject to learn what would be required to enable all farmers to realise greater benefit from their technical investments. 

Recently, beef and lamb farmers have been encouraged to invest in similar performance monitoring systems at a time when many [farming] businesses are facing significant financial hardship. Correctly identifying beneficial technologies and understanding the nature of future challenges will be the difference between survival and failure to many farmers.

Over the past 5 years I have been involved with several development and research projects and the dairy industry continues to be subject to a drip feed of innovative ideas and products. Unfortunately, I fear that “Innovation” as a concept is being sullied as consequence of poorly delivered (and underutilised) technology. In this situation, the wider livestock community may begin to associate technological innovation with disappointment and a risky financial commitment. This has very serious implications; the meagre 1.5% of global R&D expenditure currently dedicated to agriculture would be further undermined if the industry failed to invest in new technologies. A catastrophic scenario in which we will fail to provide adequate nutrition to a global population.

Furthermore, I believe many concerns harboured by consumers relating to food production can already be addressed with existing technology if deployed correctly and efficiently. So it is imperative that the wider livestock community can confidently invest in, deploy and use the latest technology and services. 

I now understand that the function and reliability of the technology alone is not enough to secure a productive outcome. I hope to identify other pertinent factors before developing a protocol that will allow farmers to better utilise their investment be it historic or planned. Finally I hope my conclusions will become [useful] considerations to designers of technical products or services as they develop their next generation of offerings.