Developing cutting edge technology in rural Ireland
- 4 August 2014
- From the section Business
Causeway in remote north County Kerry is a tiny village, really just a crossroads with a few shops and pubs in a scene little changed from 19th Century photos.
The strains of accordion music and quiet singing drifting onto the streets are the only sounds one afternoon, as a group of older folk meet at their regular sing-along organised by the community.
But just up the road is a very different world, a huge modern factory complex appearing almost out of nowhere in the rolling green countryside.
It is home to Dairymaster, one of Ireland's most remarkable and successful stories of entrepreneurial innovation.
Why one of the world's leaders in dairy farming technology is to be found in such a quiet part of Ireland is, a bit like the seniors' singing session, a lot to do with tradition, kinship and community.
"My father Ned started the company back in 1968 as a one-man operation, installing and supplying equipment locally," says today's chief executive, Edmond Harty.
"At that time he saw there was a need to improve what was available in the marketplace and to do it much quicker, and that's really how the company was born," he says.
The factory is on land Mr Harty's grandfather once farmed.
That generation could scarcely have imagined today's technology which helps the company plough a business furrow in over 40 countries worldwide, with everything sold created and made in Causeway, and Japanese and Russian marketing staff among the crew in Kerry.
"We're based in a part of Ireland that's synonymous with dairy farming," says Mr Harty, who seems just as much at home in the field as in the company headquarters, as he weaves his way through a herd of giant inquisitive cattle near the factory.
Tradition and tech
Kerry is famed for music and poetry and a trademark swashbuckling style in Gaelic football, so the genes of flair and imagination are never far away in a county with its own distinctive character.
Farming roots are key to the firm's creations and innovations to make farming easier for both farmer and cow.
Many of the 300-strong workforce with engineering skills and degrees are also steeped in the local agricultural tradition and instinctively understand the needs and language of those who farm the land.
"The staff by and large are local and they very much understand the processes that happen here on farms, what needs to be done, what opportunities there are to improve those processes. We build and we develop the knowledge, the capability within the company ourselves really," says Mr Harty.
But farming knowledge is only part of the equation: a marriage with engineering imagination and creativity has been vital.
Mr Harty's real passion from childhood was in engineering, with screwdrivers and spanners as common in his schoolbag as pencils, and a degree in mechanical engineering and a PhD followed.
Understanding animals as well as farmers is essential, he says, and working with nature and cows' natural behaviour has driven inventions and much of the research and development in Causeway.
A new generation of milking machine mimicked a suckling calf rather than hand-milking as conventional machines do: the revolutionary design coming after painstaking study of calves suckling cows, using the most advanced imaging technology.
"Mimicking what a calf actually does has allowed us to optimise the milking process, get better udder health, to make milking quicker and get more milk from those same cows," says Mr Harty.
Innovation is vital for a place at the cutting edge of a competitive and demanding sector, he says.
"As an organisation we've built a very strong research and development capability in terms of a whole variety of technologies.
"That's not only across the animal sciences and veterinary roles but also in electronics, in mobile app development and in the mechanical engineering side of things," he says.
The cow is at the centre of everything - with near sacred status. Happy cows make happy farmers so Mr Harty says animal welfare is very important.
Less stressed cows yield more milk. The hundreds of cows around the factory all wear bright blue necklaces - nothing to do with corporate branding but instead with the company's "moo monitor" device attached.
Mobile app technology inside the bovine jewellery presents the farmer on his phone with constant information on a cow's health, feeding, breeding cycle and resting.
With emigration again affecting many rural communities in Ireland in hard economic times, the realisation of Ned Harty's dream has meant jobs at home in Causeway and a cadre of locals with high-tech skills.
Ireland's Silicon Valley for cows perhaps, created by an entrepreneurial spirit which provides local jobs while helping farmers as far away as Siberia and Japan.