Livestock Drives Precision Technology

By Austin Brown

As the world`s population grows rapidly and incomes rise, demand for animal protein and products is expected to increase by seventy percent. However, supplying such an upward demand while the number of farmers continually decrease is a problem which needs to be resolved so that ethical and economical constraints are kept to the forefront of the discussion on production practices. Livestock farms must be able to balance animal welfare with sustainable agricultural practices that reduce the environmental impact of animal production systems.

Precision livestock farming addresses this challenge by applying technology in animal farms through real-time decision making at an individual animal level. Moreover, automation reduces the number of human laborers a farm needs to hire; thus, improving biosecurity and ensures consistent animal handling, so that they do not become more stressed and injure either themselves or the laborer. Data collected by sensors such as cameras, microphones, accelerometers, gas analyzers, and spectrometers can be utilized as efficient tools to analyze animals with the ultimate intent of improving their welfare. Beyond that, farmers can be more efficient in optimizing the use of labor, feed, water, and land.

Specific areas in which these technologies can improve include precision feeding, improved fertility, optimized management of animals and animal systems, hands-free weighing, sensor technology for monitoring animal behavior and health, and much more. Perhaps most exciting is the prospect of phenomics measuring. Sometimes referred to as visual sense-making, this precision technology utilizes bio-imaging to help producers identify atypical animal behavior which could indicate that the animal may be sick as well as track corresponding gain or loss in weight and collect numerous other phenotypic dimensions.

3-D animations of typical animal behaviors are predefined and then applied to actual video in livestock barns to predict behavioral health and eating/drinking habits. To make this work, animal movements are scripted in a programming language. Phenomics allows for quicker transfer and management of information on farms with large groups of animals. Robotics is quickly becoming another popular tool. Robots reduce biosecurity concerns as there is reduced risk of an outside source exposing the farm to a harmful foreign disease.

Automation reduces the number of human laborers a farm needs to hire; thus, improving biosecurity and ensures consistent animal handling, so that they do not become more stressed and injure either themselves or the laborer.

Despite precision livestock farming`s potential to increase the efficiency and sustainability of production systems, on-farm adoption of precision livestock farming is slow due to several pragmatic concerns that commercial farmers have about adopting new precision technologies.

Farmers are typically concerned these sensors are too expensive and these costs will cut too much into their profits. Another problem is there is a major disconnect between animal scientists and the agricultural/software engineers developing the algorithms used to develop the myriad of precision tools used on farms. Generally, animal scientists do not understand how these tools run and can become overwhelmed handling the gigantic sums of data that are collected once these precision technologies are plugged into play.

Last summer, I interned with Dr. Tami Brown-Brandl`s lab in Nebraska. The research project I helped with rapidly captured behavioral images for several days. These data points would remain uselessly stored in huge disk drives without the proper coding skillset. I`ve also heard some say they are concerned over the privacy and reliability of these programs. Even so, I believe precision livestock farming should be more broadly adopted as the price of sensor technologies continues to decrease, and the animal science community develops guidelines for efficient use of precision livestock farming in animal systems.

Though precision livestock tools are in their infancy, they must be adopted in larger scale production settings if demand is going to be ethically met. The technologies offered have excited farmers enough to promote continual advancements in this area of study. Producers need to remain competitive while meeting the many requirements and questions that an increasingly urbanized society imposes on them. Technological determinism suggests that it is only a matter of time before livestock farms begin utilizing these technologies, which have been heavily adopted in other industries to improve efficiency and safety by turning data into decisions.

piglets in a pen with one looking at camera
Davy3 Photo\iStock\Getty Images Plus photo

These advances have yielded a mindset shift. A few years ago, it wasn’t even deemed possible to implement these high-tech solutions on a practical farm-level due to the complexities of quantifying biologic processes. Yet, it’s important to keep into perspective that precision livestock farming research develops tools that support farmers as decision makers. These aren’t end all – be all solutions. The biologic processes of animals are too complex for technology to completely replace the presence of farmers. Intensive collaboration between people from different scientific domains and technical fields is a prerequisite for these tools to make any progress.

Unfortunately, my internship experiences have left me with concerns that such collaboration will be difficult. However, as an aspiring geneticist, I`m hopeful to utilize some of these precision technologies in my graduate research project at UC Davis to better quantify the genetic potential of SOCS2 knockout sheep.

Austin Brown
Austin Brown was the 2020 Farms.com US Precision Agriculture Scholarship winner. He is currently majoring in Animal Science and minoring in Information Systems and Statistical Analysis, International Agriculture, and Smeal Business Fundamentals. Austin will be attending UC Davis in the Fall of 2021 to obtain his Master's degree in Animal Biology under Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam.