Tech Projects are Helping Raise Healthier, Faster-Growing Livestock
“Progressive tech user” typically isn't a phrase that describes ranchers. But a global wave of IT projects aims to change that by making livestock management much more efficient—and profitable.
Some farmers are tapping tech to identify sick livestock while others are focused on fattening up cattle more quickly. And at Australia's University of Sydney, a team is hard at work on a project to deliver SwagBot, which it bills as the world's first robot for rounding up sheep and cattle.
Technology is nothing new on the farm. The global precision agriculture market—using IT to ensure crops and soil receive exactly what they need for optimum health and productivity—is expected to hit US$4.8 billion by 2020, with an 11.7 percent annual growth rate, according to a 2016 report by research firm Marketsand-Markets.
But not all segments within the sector have gone high-tech.
“The new kid on the block when it comes to precision agriculture is the livestock industry,” says David Lamb, a professor at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia. “With the aid of GPSs on combines, we've been mapping yield to track and improve harvests for 20 years. But we're just now turning our attention to cattle and sheep.”
Igniting the data revolution is a basic need for efficiency. Mr. Lamb's team, for example, recently completed a project to develop livestock yield maps. Believed to be the first such tool of its kind, it tracks animals' grazing movements to show where the most valuable weight gain is coming from. Armed with that info, farmers can make better use of their grasslands.
“Pasture utilization here in Australia is less than 50 percent on average, so we know there's room to increase productivity,” he says.
Meet SwagBot, a robot developed to round up cattle and sheep.
The two-year SwagBot project is all about helping ranchers more cost-effectively monitor Australia's outback cattle stations, which can span more than 4,000 square kilometers (1,544 square miles). Using thermal and vision sensors, the “farmbot” will help ranchers identify sick and injured animals as well as track whether they have sufficient grazing, according to a report in New Scientist.
“We want to improve the quality of animal health and make it easier for farmers to maintain large landscapes where animals roam free,” University of Sydney's Salah Sukkarieh told the magazine.
For any of the tech to truly take hold, it must be simple and intuitive enough for ranchers with limited tech skills to use it.
Precision Animal Solutions is working on a project aimed at delivering a product to track bovine respiratory disease, “the biggest cause of lost dollars and dead cattle in the feeding industry,” says Dan Goehl, co-founder of the Manhattan, Kansas, USA company.
The concept uses a radio-frequency identification system to track the movement, speed and socialization patterns of cattle. When cows are sick, they tend to move slower and isolate themselves from the herd. Proprietary algorithms will be able to sense those subtle differences and identify cows that need attention.
“The computer can pick up idiosyncrasies that humans can't. And that means better efficiencies, less antibiotic use and fewer dead cattle,” Mr. Goehl says.
But the team knew it had to stick to the basics.
“We don't want to overwhelm users with all this data that isn't useful on a daily basis,” Mr. Goehl says. “They just need to know in one glance which animals are at risk. It can be as easy as a text message that tells them which calves to pull.”
Even if a tool delivers benefits, organizations still might face a tough audience. So Mr. Lamb recommends engaging end users during the design and testing phases of an R&D project “to create an appetite” for the technology. At his university, the team relies on a 7,000-acre (2,833-hectare) facility for testing intelligent farming projects.
“We need to bring our stakeholders along as we research, and let them pick what they want to use and access.”
—David Lamb, University of New England, Armidale, Australia
“We need to bring our stakeholders along as we research, and let them pick what they want to use and access,” Mr. Lamb says. “With the grains industry, many researchers coughed up and spat out lots of technology, and in some cases it took the industry 10 years to find their footing with it. So this has to be a husbanding exercise right from the start. We don't want to spend time working up some silver bullet solution they can't access because the technology is too difficult or expensive.”
In the 18 months after the university opened its SMART Farm Innovation Center in March 2015, the team's tech workshops and discussion attracted more than 3,000 stakeholders, from small farming operations to large corporations. “The tide is turning, and we want to make sure people know that sustainable, manageable and accessible rural technologies are out there.” —Kate Rockwood