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Icons of Progress

Optimizing the Food Supply


More than 50 years ago, Denmark enlisted IBM's help to create an innovative central cattle database, now called the Central Husbandry Register (CHR), a collection of data about every beef and dairy cow in the country of 5 million people and 1.2 million cattle. The database has helped Denmark become a significant player in dairy and beef exports, and saved the nation’s cattle industry during the mad cow disease scare of the 1980s.

Cobbling together the first take at the central cattle database was not easy. Every dairy and beef cattle farmer in the entire country had to accurately report the date of birth (or importation) of every animal, as well as genealogy, medication and veterinary history, milk production and quality, and dozens of other bits of information.

“We started by taking all the data by hand, one cow at a time,” says Soren P. Iversen, delivery project executive at IBM Global Services in Denmark. Iversen knows cows. Born and raised on a dairy farm in Denmark, he graduated from the University of Southern Denmark in Odense with a degree in computer science and agriculture, and went to work in 1977 as an analyst for LEC, a data processing arm of the Danish Cattle Federation.

“We quickly moved all the data to an IBM ® System/370 in the early days,” says Iversen. “And we discovered, in a relatively short time span, that by just tracking yields and breeding information, we were able to improve the overall output, on a national basis, by around 70 percent. An extraordinary amount. By the 1980s, every farm had a unique number and every animal had a unique ear tag. We had nearly 800 people working on the database.”

In the late 1980s, mad cow disease—bovine spongiform encephalopathy—broke out in the United Kingdom. Large international customers, such as Japan, refused to buy any products from Europe unless the animals’ detailed records proved they had not come in contact with a disease-bearing herd. “There was a lot of fear when mad cow broke out,” says Iversen. “But it was not a problem for Denmark because of the extensive nature of the Cattle Database.”

IBM bought LEC, the small IT company running the database, from Maersk in 2004. Iversen’s team today uses IBM Power ® 700 servers. And many of the cattle have graduated from plastic number tags to radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which transmit information electronically.

Many Danish farms now use automated milking stations that transmit information about the milk and the cow automatically to the database. “These are fully automated stations,” Iversen says. “The cows determine when they want to come in to be milked, and we capture the data at the same time.”

The CHR has grown to five terabytes of information, including genetic maps of each animal. Yet the number of people required to maintain the technology has been reduced from 800 to less than 300. “We used to spend a lot of time ironing out data entry errors coming from the farms,” says Iversen. “Now we solve a lot of those problems with logical resolution programs built into the software. The errors can be corrected before they get into the database.”

Cattle breeding has long been an international business, and Denmark’s success has prompted calls for developing a database that will combine information from herds in more than one country. Iversen and his team anticipate bidding on a Nordic-wide database sometime in the future. “I think the future will be global cattle databases,” says Iversen. “It’s a logical progression. We already know more about each cow in Denmark right now than we do about the people who live here.”