Dairy’s Got Data

by   |   May 4, 2012 6:57 pm   |   0 Comments

A vintage postcard of the Guernsey Cattle Club building in Peterborough, N.H., via Cow Hampshire

The Atlantic recently published a great article on how the dairy industry are using analytics to determine which gene combinations in cow breeding will result in the best milk producers (“The Perfect Milk Machine: How Big Data Transformed the Dairy Industry”). You might not associate dairy farming with cutting edge data science, but the industry has a long history of using technology to maximize breeding potential.

In his article, Alexis Madrigal points out:

Data-driven predictions are responsible for a massive transformation of America’s dairy cows. While other industries are just catching on to this whole “big data” thing, the animal sciences — and dairy breeding in particular — have been using large amounts of data since long before [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] was calculating the outsized genetic impact of the most sought-after bulls with a pencil and paper in the 1980s.

I’ve long been aware of dairy’s love of data because of where I worked earlier in my career. The largest building in downtown Peterborough, N.H., is referred to by locals as the Guernsey building. It used to house the Guernsey Cattle Club. Part of its mission was to track data on all livestock owned by its members for the purpose of breeding for desirable traits.

As I said, the building is huge. Built sometime in the 1950s, its four stories housed hundreds of people who typed information about cows and bulls onto file cards—state of the art for the day. If a cattleman wanted any of the data, he sent a letter or picked up the phone to put in a request. Maybe in a few weeks he would get the information.

When computers came along, the club went digital, eliminating the need for the typists and rows upon rows of file cabinets. This was great for farmers, many of which were early adopters of personal computers. A computer allowed them to better manage their operations and gave them more access to weather data.

The cattle club moved out of town and into smaller offices. Eventually, the building was taken over by BYTE magazine (where I once worked). This is both ironic and fitting, as the space was both emptied and then filled again thanks to the advance of technology.

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