Project attracts new skills to dairy

05 Sep, 2017 12:00 PM
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These type of projects are helping us think differently about improving genetic evaluations.

The dairy industry has skills: agronomists, vets, international traders, scientists. That's even before including farmers, who are all of the above. Nevertheless, the industry can always use more skills.

Gardiner Dairy Foundation, in partnership with Monash University, has identified a way to attract new people with skills to dairy. The Monash Industry Team Initiative (or MITI, for short) partners high-calibre student teams with dairy organisations to design innovative solutions to real world issues.

This whets the appetite of the students for a rewarding career in dairy, often giving them a taste of life in regional Victoria. The dairy organisations get skilled and enthusiastic young people bringing a fresh set of eyes to problems. It's a win:win.

One of the 15 MITI teams for 2016/2017 summer was placed with DataGene, who wanted to assess the plausibility of cow classification by video so that the number of classifications could increase to improve breeding value accuracy. Classification is a way of scoring a cow's physical attributes.

Scoring must be performed by a trained classifier with experience and a strong eye for the breed of cow. However, many traits are directly related to a geometric measurement. For example, the "muzzle" trait is a measurement of the distance between the nostrils. A wide muzzle is a positive trait because it suggests that the cow can graze effectively.

From a farmer's perspective, classification is important because an understanding of the physical traits that can be improved will assist breeding decisions that can make those improvements. If a cow has a lower than desirable score for stature, for example, it can be mated with a bull that typically produces tall progeny.

From the perspective of DataGene, more classification data will lead to more accurate breeding values.

Classifying cows by video might increase the number of classifications records that can be used for genetic evaluation. The farmer could simply video their cows and then have the video uploaded to be scored. Perhaps software could be developed to automatically measure some of the traits that are measured traits, such as rump angle or stature traits, potentially saving classifiers some time.

Glen Barrett is operations manager of DataGene and supervised the MITI team. "It was an exciting opportunity to engage with students and see what they could deliver," Mr Barrett said. "These types of projects are helping us think differently about improving our genetic evaluations."

One of the students working on the technology was third-year electrical engineering student Sam McCarthy. Mr McCarthy and his fellow team members were able to suggest some potential solutions to the technical challenges posed by automatically measuring a cow.

"When we used video taken by a smartphone, we found that the distance calculations rely on knowing how the camera is moving," he said. "We won't always know that or be able to control that perfectly. Microsoft Kinect could get around the problem."

What's Microsoft Kinect? It's a sensor technology used on the Xbox gaming console. That may or may not be the answer for this technology, but it's a great example of how fresh thinking can throw up truly innovative solutions.

"This is just step one," Mr Barrett said about the future of this technology. "We have demonstrated it's possible, now we need to work with the breed societies to create a tool that is both useful and usable."

The MITI program has also been opening opportunities in dairy manufacturing.

Milk is complex. The foods that it is made into are even more complex - powders, butter, creams, yoghurts, desserts, any number of types of cheese, just for a start. This is the job of the dairy factory. Take in raw material that is highly perishable, and varies in composition, then convert it into diverse range of delicious products, usually handling volumes that are breathtakingly large.

It's a job that requires skills. Specifically, engineering skills.

Warrnambool Cheese and Butter innovation manager Clinton Hill said: "The students say that they're surprised by the complexity of our job and just how interesting the engineering aspects of the industry are. This Gardiner program has helped us give young engineers exposure to the dairy industry -- an industry that they otherwise wouldn't have considered as a career option."

As dairy manufacturers shift away from bulk commodities towards more consumer-focused products, they require increasingly sophisticated skill sets. The Gardiner initiative was established to overcome this challenge of attracting high-calibre engineers and other important skills to the dairy sector.

It's been a common refrain across all the dairy manufacturers that have been involved - Devondale Murray Goulburn, Fonterra, Bega Cheese, Warrnambool Cheese and Butter, Lion, Parmalat and Burra Foods - accounting for more than 90 per cent of Victoria's milk.

The Gardiner Dairy Foundation pilot program in 2015 was highly successful. Seven teams of students with a focus on engineering, education and information technology were embedded with five dairy companies. In 2016 there was an increase in both students and manufacturers, with 10 teams. This year, the program has grown again to involve 41 students across 15 projects.

And the students?

Meghna Lahiri was placed with Burra Foods. "It was just amazing," she said. "I enjoyed the work, as well as the countryside. Very pretty, good weather, the culture, it was just amazing."

Ms Lahiri had just finished her Master of Business Information Systems in November before starting the Gardiner internship in December. "After finishing my internship, Burra Foods offered me a job," she said. "The internship really, really helped, because it was very much linked to what I was doing in my Masters -- understanding the business requirements and aligning the IT systems."

The Gardiner Dairy Foundation is looking forward to introducing another cohort of skills to our great industry in the 2017/18 summer. D

Read more at http://www.gardinerfoundation.com.au/legacy-projects/monash-industry-team-initiative/.

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