A top cow can produce as many as 10,000 litres of milk each year; but the journey from the farm to your morning cereal bowl is an increasingly high tech affair in order to ensure both quality and safety.
One of the biggest challenges for farmers and dairy businesses is ensuring that milk is kept at the right temperature. If it gets too warm after milking there is the risk that the quality will fade, and also that naturally occurring bacteria in the milk will multiply and spoil it completely.
Traditionally the temperature of milk has been measured when the tanker arrives at a farm and starts to pump milk out of the farmer’s vats and into the tanker. As the milk is pumped through the flow meter the temperature is recorded.
While the farmer is notified of the temperature – that traditionally could be a day or even two after a collection.
If the milk has been too warm then the entire tanker-load may have to be discarded at a cost of up to $10,000 per event; imposing both financial and environmental impacts.
Australian Consolidated Milk (ACM) is Australia’s fastest growing dairy company – collecting milk from farms, testing it and transporting it to an array of high quality food producers.
Kim Morris, field service support and quality co-ordinator for ACM, explains that over the last seven years ACM has grown significantly and now serves around 180 farms and suppliers, handing 350 million litres of milk each year.
In July 2017 alone, ACM experienced 12 spoiled tanker-loads of milk – there had to be a better way.
Morris explains that there are five aspects of milk quality that need careful monitoring, with temperature traditionally one of the more challenging. While most farm vats have temperature gauges a farmer might not know that the electricity supply to his vats has been interrupted during the day, causing temperatures to rise. By the time he returns to the milking sheds the electricity may have been restored and the temperature dropped – with no obvious signs that the milk may have been compromised.
Under the old system a farmer might not learn that there had been a problem with the milk for a day or two, simply because of the challenges in getting data to the farmer.
Working with Kyabram-based Advance Computing, ACM is now trialling an Internet of Things cloud based solution that will deliver much greater temperature transparency and provide farmers with the opportunity to take action much sooner to preserve the quality of their milk.
Chris Motton, Advance Computing director explains; “We’ve already built a reporting app for ACM’s farmers using Azure, Xamarin, SQL, and .NET that delivers lab results, trending, quality and payment information.
“It can also send alerts to mobiles through Azure Notification Hub so that farmers can take action.”
ACM is now piloting the live monitoring of farms using Azure IoT Hub and Microsoft Flow. Data ties in to the existing app and to ACM’s Azure based ERP which was also developed by Advance Computing.
Morris explains that ACM manages four grades of milk – premium, choice, first and second grade – with the grade determined by a series of laboratory and temperature tests. Each grade has an economic impact – premium commands the highest prices, with a sliding scale to second for which a farmer is paid 40 per cent less than for premium grade.
By sending quality and temperature notifications to farmers immediately they can make instant adjustments to the herd or milking regime.
Morris explains that; “In a lot of dairies, once they finish milking, the milk sits in the vat, and the farmer doesn’t really go near the dairy. They’re out in the pastures or calving or whatever. They actually have a temperature gauge on their vat, but they’ll very rarely look at that once they’ve finished milking.”
By having a cloud based IoT monitoring system that sends regular readings or alerts to the farmer’s smartphone it will be possible to monitor the milk hour by hour and alert everyone in the supply chain to “Whether it has dropped to the appropriate temperature in the cooling envelopes to the standard required.
“Or if the power’s gone off and it’s a 40 degree day, we know that, we can get an alert, then send another notification to the farmer to check the vat and in the meantime we can send out a truck to pick up the milk straight away.”
Morris says; “I’ve had a farmer ring me this afternoon to say he’s had a breakdown with his vat, he’s had the electrician out there and he can’t get the part. So what we have to do is put him on a hot vat milk pick up. So he gets picked up after each milking rather than his regular schedule, so the milk is not sitting too hot in the vat, it gets picked up with other cooler milk, chilled and taken into the factory a lot sooner before the bugs get a chance to grow.”
The opportunity to move to round-the-clock real time temperature monitoring by deploying IoT sensors across the ACM network offers even finer control.
“First of all, it’s a cost thing, we are not dumping milk. And there are obviously environmental impacts with that as well as financial,” says Morris.
There are also significant quality impacts for the food producers which rely on ACM milk supplies. “We want to be able to provide the company with the best quality milk so they can produce the best quality products. So the better the milk quality when they receive it, the better the consumer product will be,” delivering a demonstrable edge in terms of quality health and nutritional value, says Morris.
Once the IoT based solution is fully deployed there are opportunities for additional enhancement, for example deploying Azure machine learning capabilities, says Motton to further enhance quality and supply chain logistics.
According to Morris; “ACM has been very supportive of what we are trying to do and we are very happy with what Advance Computing has developed. We have a good partnership with them.”