Hamilton IT scene: Virtual Molly faces real-world test

The modelling team at Dairy NZ has spent over a decade creating a mathematical representation of a dairy farm

Dairy NZ – the research organisation funded mainly by a levy on farmers – is located in what feels like the middle of nowhere to a townie, but is maybe the centre of the universe for those involved in this country’s greatest export earner, dairying.

Upon arrival I met with Pierre Beukes (pictured below), who introduced me to the idea of Molly the virtual cow.

Beukes is head of the modelling team, which has spent over a decade constructing a mathematical representation of a dairy farm populated Molly clones.

In the 1990s the team began by creating a structure upon which to populate a virtual farm, one that would allow them to add layers of complexity over time. One of their first tasks was to look for an existing cow model they could adapt for New Zealand conditions. They discovered her at the University of California, she’d been developed by a group of animal physiologists and modellers. They called her Molly.

“She’s got over 1000 parameters, and she models what happens when grass goes into a cow, the changes in the stomach, into the rumen, into the blood and all the blood components and into milk and into body fat and into baby cows and all that.”

Beukes admits she’s still not behaving exactly the same as a 'real cow' but they have come a long way since the days when she could not ‘graze’ because US cows are generally kept indoors.

The pastoral production model was developed in New Zealand by David McCall. Every day it is fed real-world data such as temperature, humidity, wind and solar radiation measurements from NIWA. “The pasture model understands that and grows according to what it gets,” explains Beukes.

He says the purpose of the models is to accurately represent a real farm, so that before investing millions in field research, the model can test alternative options. It is used by researchers to try out ideas and to predict what might happen when conditions change.

Beukes says that a PhD student is currently using the farm model to look at the impact of climate change on farmland. Using the information from NIWA predictions for the climate in 2030 and 2050, she is trying to show what might happen to farms as some regions are going to be “warmer and rainier and some places warmer and drier".

“We can put in the future climate and see where the farm falls over if you just keep doing what you’re doing,” Beukes says.

Computerworld suggested that the model sounded like a version of the computer game Sims, but Beukes says there is no visual representation of the Molly clones on the farm - yet. Last month they had a visit from the New Zealand Forest Research Institute which is planning to engage Hit Lab, the research institute at Canterbury University which focuses on human interface technology, to visualise modelling projects.

“Instead of him going to a group of land use managers with a graph which is three dimensional, they can go in there and they can move around and it shows them how the land looks,” he says. “He asked us if we want to be part of that and we said yes because we can see the value of seeing as you move through the options.”

But Molly and her virtual pasture can only inhabit a computer program for so long. Ideas must become reality and so it is that the modelling team is facing a major test of credibility – a real life trial through Pastoral 21, the research consortium on one of Dairy NZ's farms. One plot adopts conditions according to what the model prescribes, the other is run using standard farming practice and acts as the reference point.

The problem it is looking at is how to increase milk production but with a smaller environmental footprint. Beukes says its challenging because “they are forces opposing each other.”

One year into the four-year field trial, milk production on the ‘efficient’ farm is a little down on what was modelled but they’re hoping it will catch up. Nitrogen leaching is also being closely monitored as this will demonstrate a lower environmental footprint.

“The reality will tell us if our modelling is any good or not,” says Beukes. “It’s an acid test for the modelling group.”

* This is the third in a series of articles about the Hamilton IT scene. Tomorrow Computerworld visits two companies that sprang from research carried out at Waikato University - Rural Link and Endace. Read also Ultra Fast Starts Now and Gallagher cultivates culture of innovation.

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