For families in rural India, a cow is a prized possession: its milk is their best source of protein.
But while India is the world’s largest dairy producer, the typical herd size is small – an average of two cows or buffalo per farm – and almost half of all the milk produced is consumed by the farmer’s own family or sold to others in their village.
Now, digital technology is helping to boost milk yields, often creating a surplus that can be sold.
Technology that keeps tabs on nature
The change in milk yields for dairy farmers comes as a result of an AI-powered platform called mKRISHI® that has been used by agricultural farmers for several years.
By analysing weather patterns, local soil conditions and crop varieties, mKRISHI® can tell farmers when to plant their crops, which varieties to plant and how to get the highest yield. It even advises the best time to harvest.
Among the many inputs is data from Internet of Things (IoT) enabled soil monitors that measure temperature and moisture levels. Help is also on hand to tackle pests which attack crops. The farmer takes a photograph of the pest and uploads it to the mKRISHI® app, which then identifies the insect and suggests ways of countering it.
The benefits continue even after the harvest is in. By crunching data about daily fluctuations in demand for cereals and market prices, mKRISHI® can also tell farmers when to sell to get the best price.
Boosting milk yields
Building on the success of the agricultural project, the scientists turned their attention to dairy farmers. Further developments enabled mKRISHI® to help manage livestock and animal husbandry.
Eight out of 10 farmers use local breeds of cattle that have been the mainstay for generations. Existing breeds were typically delivering no more than four litres per day over a 200-day annual producing cycle − barely enough for one family.
To help boost milk yields, the BAIF Development Research Foundation, a Non-governmental organisation based in Maharashtra, began a programme of doorstep artificial insemination, cross breeding the local cattle with high milk yielding bulls.
BAIF offers these services through its Cattle Development Centres (CDCs), but the process is very complex with the CDC technicians needing to maintain at least 50 parameters of data for 2 to 20 years for each cattle to ensure an effective breed improvement service.
So, the starting point for the animal husbandry version of mKRISHI® was to identify best suitable breeds and cattle management practices that could deliver higher milk yields.
Using mKRISHI®, the farmer’s existing breed of cattle is matched to the best variety with which to crossbreed to achieve a higher milk output, boosting the yield per cow to as much as 16 litres a day through its progenies over 3-4 generations. Each calf is issued with a digital birth certificate proving it’s a high-milk-yield variety that increases the animal’s value.
The genetic data from the birth certificate also adds to the knowledge repository driving breed selection in mKRISHI®, further enhancing the technology’s ability to help improve the whole country’s dairy herd.
Because breeding their own cattle is much cheaper than buying new livestock, farmers can begin to build from a single cow to a herd, transforming themselves into small-scale commercial farmers.
mKRISHI® now supports half a million dairy farmers across India. Milk production has more than quadrupled. Farmers band together in co-operatives and sell milk to major processors.
‘A Google for rural India’
mKRISHI® grew out of the TCS Digital Farming Initiative, a project by Tata Consultancy Services’ (TCS) Research and Innovation Labs, to prevent farming families from going hungry when crops fail. The team set out to create what they initially called “a Google for rural India”, which they later named Krishi, where m=mobile and Krishi, the Hindi word for agriculture.
“Information technology is a $150 billion industry in India,” says TCS Innovation Labs’ Dinesh Singh. “But the majority of the IT industry revolves around banking, telecoms, the finance sector and healthcare.”
“We wanted to develop a direct application for the agriculture sector, which is the biggest employment sector in the world,” he says. “If the IT industry is solving global problems, why can’t it solve the problems of agriculture?”
An ecosystem approach
TCS leveraged its Co-Innovation Network™, an ecosystem that includes tech start-ups, to engage partners who could help them build the app and the digital analytics that lie behind it. For technology pilots and content, mKRISHI® partnered with expert bodies like the BAIF and Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI).
Inspired by the sectoral problems, which mKRISHI® brings to the forefront, one partner used nanotechnology to improve the design of the IoT soil sensors, bringing the unit cost down from approximately $12,000 to just $100 each. Data from the sensors plays a vital role in assessing soil health.
“The more farmers that interact with mKRISHI®, the more knowledge it builds for the benefit of all users – we are generating new knowledge in real time,” says Singh.
mKRISHI® has helped lift the spectre of agriculture challenges from many rural communities. Singh says all this was achieved by starting, not with the technology, but by applying design thinking, working with farmers and vets to understand their challenges and needs. Partnering with expert organizations and start-ups in a digital ecosystem was also key to the project’s success.
“This is a good example of technology being used for social transformation,” says Singh. “Not by replacing something, but by complementing it in such a way that the technology becomes seamless, integrated into your day-to-day life.”