What is "App" with your dairy farm?
Life on the farm is becoming increasingly fast-paced. From climate change to policies, markets to consumers, technology to practices, the fast-changing world demands an ever-faster pace of living. Is there an App to save us from all this?
Maybe. Several dairy Apps are already on the market, with some linked to their monitoring devices for animals and facilities. Many of you are familiar with the USDA's online decision-making tool for Margin Protection Plan enrollment, as well as the market watch dashboard from Dairy Markets and Policy. Additionally, Victor Cabrera and his collaborators at the University of Wisconsin Extension have created an array of decision-making tools for topics such as feeding, reproduction, production management, financials, risk management, and environmental sustainability. Such tools can assist your decision-making process and increase your understanding of the underlying scientific or economic mechanisms.
I am an agricultural economist and newly hired research/extension faculty member of the Dairy Extension Team. One of my responsibilities will be to develop decision-making Apps for dairy producers and advisors. I plan to develop Apps that can help producers cope with the fast-changing production practices in the dairy world.
Let me step back a little. The transformation of agriculture through the increasing use of on-farm data collection and analyses is underway, and the data will empower dairy producers in many ways. Increased monitoring of operations means that daily tasks can be executed with higher precision, and immediate feedback through monitoring makes it easy to quickly apply certain practices on the farm. Testing for diseases, assessing nutritional requirements, analyzing risks, and simulating investments will become accessible and increasingly commonplace. All of this will likely demand changes to your dairy operation.
Thus, the big questions are: How can the University of Minnesota help you with this? What kind of Apps can make University of Minnesota Extension more effective in serving you?
Here are my priorities: First, determine how best to assist producers in integrating the data and the science for decision-making. This is where interactive tools are clearly useful since they can deliver customized analyses according to individual dairy operation's practices, financials, resources, risk preferences, goals, and investment plans. I am currently developing a dairy benchmarking tool that provides diagnostics from an operation management perspective. The idea is to identify the best practices in a collection of actual financial data (such as FINBIN) and to use that for evaluating the management efficiency of user-entered data for milk output and input use. It is the practice of the best dairy operations, instead of the average ones, that will show what achievements are possible and how your dairy farm compares in the current state of technology. Within the limits of data confidentiality, I plan to make such best practices accessible so that the information can be used to reverse-engineer your path to an optimum level of competence. This should partially address the common frustration among producers that operational and financial data are frequently lacking from the showcase examples of best practices.
The second priority is to create an additional platform for producer engagement. The traditional top-down approach to disseminating research-based recommendations, along with on-demand consultations, currently sits at the core of extension services, yet this approach is being outpaced by the dynamic flow of industry knowledge. One way to mitigate this informational gap is to develop flexible, fast-paced, two-way communication channels between producers and Extension. As opposed to the "pyramid" style of traditional communication channels, a useful analogy may be a "sand hourglass"; Extension takes in various bits of information from producers and the industry, funnels them down to a concentrated flow, and disseminates it back to the producer community.
The third priority is how to foster the culture of on-farm micro-experiments and facilitate information sharing through producer networks. The decreasing cost of on-farm data collection and analyses makes it easier to test out the newest research findings or industry practices on the farm. Effectively sharing the experiences in such micro-experiments will enhance the competitiveness of producers in the network. The use of collective intelligence will be particularly crucial to small- and medium-scale producers since their dairy practices differ from each other's and from the industrial management of large-scale dairies. A comparative advantage of having a larger head count in the network is the accelerated learning and innovation process.
These discussions are not new; interactive tools through Excel spreadsheets, Internet bulletins, and discussion forums have existed for many years. What sets Apps apart, however, is the potential to attract many users at a lightning speed. Having many users and frequent usage is often a game changer because high-volume user-interaction dramatically accelerates the growth of shared knowledge, which also increases the benefits to individuals exponentially. Moreover, highly-engaged individuals tend to generate a culture of positive interactions, empowering new users and leading to large-scale behavioral shifts in the population.
Shortly I will launch a simple App called "AppRumen", which will convert your ideas, experiences, and struggles into the energy for App development. The greatest resource of all is the dairy producer network. Let Extension and Apps help you milk it. Feel free to share your suggestions with me as I embark on my new journey at the University of Minnesota.