Harnessing precision technology for better beef profitability

Profitable periods can be elusive in the beef industry, but new precision technologies could be a way to greater returns.

That’s according to Dr. Robin White, assistant professor of integrated beef production systems management at Virginia Tech, who spoke at the 2019 Beef Symposium in Guelph, Ont., this past winter.

“We want to influence the feedback loop of how an animal interacts with its environment through feed, feed additives, housing, pathogens, antibiotics and even other animals,” says White. “At the same time, we recognize that economics is the biggest factor in that feedback loop between management, animal biology and environment — so if we can do things to reduce the cost of affecting that environment and increasing the animal’s response, you’ll be better off.”

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According to White, there’s a big role for precision technology to influence a range of things such as reproductive success, mortality, forage quality, growth rate, feed efficiency and genetic merit.

Currently, most management is focused on the average or lower-producing animals, which results in over-management of the higher producers. A move towards precision management in beef cattle, however, means animals can be treated more as individuals with consideration given to their diversity in size, shape and genetics. And this, argues White, can reduce waste in the system, which enhances both efficiencies and a farm’s bottom line.

So what are some of the precision applications out there for beef producers?

GPS trackers are one of the more widespread technologies available for extensive or low input cattle systems. Each animal wears a GPS unit — neck or feet are popular locations — that keeps track of its location, as well as being able to monitor its body temperature, daily movement rate, and how often it has eaten, gone to the waterer or taken mineral licks.

Activity monitoring is a good indicator of animal health and productivity as movement changes quite a bit before and after disease events, giving producers a chance to manage animals before they start showing visible disease symptoms. GPS tracking systems can also help with security by providing alerts when animals move outside of designated areas.

“An important consideration for this technology is how far away your pastures are from your physical location. If you see each animal daily in a meaningful interaction because you manage them, it might not be worth it,” says White. “Do you need information on how your animals are using the land — is it worthwhile to move to rotational grazing, for example? You can get information on your grazing patterns to help you decide what to do.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones can also be useful tools to help with activity monitoring. According to White, there’s quite a bit of research underway currently to establish good algorithms that can clearly identify cows from other animals like coyotes, for example. As the technology evolves, it could generate important data about how cattle are moving around and how they spend their time, and could also support visual health and pasture monitoring.

“This is still a developing area for agriculture but the theory is that it doesn’t require a person to fly the drone; you can pre-program a path for that drone to fly,” says White, adding drones could also be used to scan for pasture quality or quantity and uniformity of available forage.

An important consideration for producers is determining whether they’re legally allowed to fly a drone over their property — drone traffic is prohibited on land within airport flight paths, for example. Other important factors include whether the UAV will be flown manually or autonomously and how much property it will need to cover.

Systems are also evolving to monitor cattle methane or carbon dioxide emissions. Although not yet at a price point for production agriculture, the technology might be of value to producers on special niche market programs or could become more important if methane reduction takes on a greater role in the future.

There are precision technologies for more intensive beef production systems too. Ear tags, for example, can monitor animal health and provide alerts for early detection which could help producers address morbidity and mortality problems.

“If your workers aren’t skilled at identifying animals on a regular or consistent basis, technology can get around that problem,” says White, adding electronic tracking can also help producers manage sick or treated animals.

In-rumen monitoring lets producers track rumen temperature and pH, as well as drinking activity and heat detection. It’s a device that doesn’t need to go in every animal, but can be used on a “one per pen” basis to serve as an indicator of something that could be affecting a group of animals, like acute or subacute ruminate acidosis.

“These boluses are about $500 each, so you need $500 in return on that pen to make it worthwhile. But you can look at daily variation and it will send you an alert to your phone that tells you what the data says,” explains White.

On the robot side, Cargill has introduced a robotic cattle driver than can minimize worker injuries when moving cattle. In Australia, a robot can read a feed bunk and make recommendations on feeding based on what it has detected.

It’s worth noting what other livestock sectors are doing, says White. Animal health monitoring is moving particularly quickly in the dairy industry, for example, and automated precision feeding lets each cow get a precisely tailored ration each time she visits the robotic milker.

In the pig and poultry sectors, systems are evaluating vocalization inside barns to identify animals in distress, although it remains to be seen whether that could have application in the beef industry too.

There are challenges to implementation, though. Cost is a significant factor. Ensuring that sensors are working correctly and that systems are providing the correct metrics and analytics are critical to seeing a decent return on the technology investment.

“It’s important to ask yourself — does it solve a problem that is costing you money? If you want to invest in something, it should make your life better,” she advises. “Don’t buy technology because it is fun; buy it because it does something for you.”

Lilian Schaer is a freelance agricultural journalist and communications professional based near Guelph, Ont. You can follow her on Twitter at @foodandfarming.

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