A dairy farm invention with a difference

How can dairy farmers ensure their cattle receive the right volume of supplemental trace minerals on a daily basis? Two Irish brothers invented a solution. 

For the last decade, brothers Padraig and Tom Hennessey of Terra Services in Moone, Co. Kildare have innovated, laying down systems of water pipe networks, linking the parlour to the paddock for dairy farmers across the country.

More recently their sister company, Terra Liquid Minerals, has pioneered the integration of a smart delivery solution for their liquid mineral range into a farm’s water-pipe infrastructure. It is a remotely monitored solution and helps ensure that the dairy herd receives the correct volume of supplemental trace minerals on a daily basis.

The system also adjusts to the variability of Irish grass growth, local soil type and prevailing weather conditions, to help optimise herd health and performance. Padraig recounts how it all began and shares their intriguing plans for the future.

“Farmers might read about your company in the farming press, but they generally prefer to do business face-to-face.”

Starting out

In 2005 after completing an agribusiness degree in the UK, Tom returned home to Ireland to set up Terra Services, an irrigation company, initially aimed at the golf industry. Soon he was approached by some local farmers, to lay down water pipe networks on their farms. This was unique, as the only option available to farmers at the time was a do-it-yourself model. Word of Tom’s new service soon spread to the national farming press, and he decided to book a stand at the 2008 Ploughing to determine the actual level of interest among dairy farmers for his service.

Terra Liquid Minerals

At the time, I was working in Dublin launching a digital payments product. Tom asked if I could take a week’s holiday, to help him out on the Terra stand, at the following week’s National Ploughing in Co. Kilkenny. His call was serendipitous as it coincided with the start of the credit crunch, and with me being laid off, on the Friday before the Ploughing. So the following week, I ended up working on the stand where demand among dairy farmers for the new service, was just incredible. It showed that farmers might read about your company in the farming press, but they generally prefer to do business face to face. In September 2008, the Terra Services business took off, and I never had to look for another job again.

“Over a five year period, we doubled the size of the business every single year.”

New business model

After the Ploughing Championships, I started installing on-farm pipework systems with Tom. Farmers really valued a new water network on their farms. However for us, it was a one-off sale, and we needed to find a recurring business model, as otherwise every year, we were starting from zero. As part of customer discovery, we noted that we were being requested by farmers, to provide an accurate method to mete out liquid dairy cow minerals, via the farm’s water pipework system. These farmers were looking for a greater choice to avoid portioning out powdered minerals by hand or having to purchase them via pre-fortified animal feed. They felt that there was little point in getting the same minerals in a purchased ration, as someone else’s farm located ten miles away because both farmers’ lands and animals are different.

Over the next few years, we began researching the technology and markets at home and abroad. We felt that there could be a real need for a very accurate mineral dispensing technology for the dairy herd. We realised that we needed to develop a bespoke dispensing system and in 2012, we brought the first technology together. In the first week, we installed three systems with original customers from the Terra pipework business. Since then the business has taken off, and over a five year period, we doubled the size of the business every single year. We make money through the sales of minerals and technical back up services to our farmer customers.

The problem we solve is to help farmers save both time and labour using science rather than anecdotal evidence to rectify on-farm deficiencies. Trace minerals are essential nutrients, and common animals must receive them in their diet, and the results from using our system are reflected in a significant improvement in herd health, fertility and productivity.

“Our ‘ORB’ design uses a consumable capsule which dispenses the exact amount of minerals each day with no external power supply needed.”

USP and design thinking

We are the only wholly automated way on the market to put liquid minerals into farm water systems that is 100% accurate. We also use our own ‘Vital Range’ of minerals and aim to become market leaders in this space with a whole R&D product pipeline coming down the road. Recently we have been developing technology to dispense minerals on smaller farms with fragmented water supplies. Our newly designed ‘ORB’ technology uses a proprietary consumable capsule which dispenses the exact amount of minerals per day with no external power supply needed. Its design emanated from a problem we posed to a group of UCD Innovation Academy students on a ‘design thinking’ module. They provided us with the bones of a fantastic solution, and we were thrilled with the outcome.

“We know the volume of minerals going through the system at any one time. This is a game-changer.”

Growing the business

From the start, we have always been self-funded and profitable and have managed to hold onto all share-holding and re-invest cash back into the business. In total, we employ 15 people, and in 2017 we reached critical mass and decided to build our factory on the farm with the aim to produce our full range of minerals in-house. It’s exhilarating at the moment with so many different projects on the go.

Terra Liquid Minerals

Our new remote monitoring facility offers many significant benefits. Firstly, we can give farmers valuable real-time data via phone app alerts incorporating farm advice, water leaks and low water usages and significantly help optimise our on-farm servicing costs. Secondly, we will know the volume of minerals going through the system at any one time. This is a game-changer and essentially provides us with a route to market to help scale the business with international distributors by using various combinations of direct sales and licensing agreements.

What makes me the most excited about the business is the buzz you get after every sale. It’s about growing the business, account by account and cow by cow. It’s great when they tell you how delighted they are with the system and are saying the same to their friends. As we’ve continued to grow, we have started to become less risk-averse. As Irish people sometimes we feel that our horizon extends only as far as the UK market. As a country we need to believe that we can compete with anyone in the world; and that’s what we are starting to believe in this company – that we can go out there and compete and launch a serious international business.

Article by Brendan Byrne