New Watering Units Could Revolutionize Feedlot Management

GrowSafe Systems of Airdrie, Alta. has made its name known to beef researchers worldwide since its introduction of its GrowSafe feed intake and behaviour monitoring units in 2000. The company took that experience and knowledge to the next level in 2003 when it began developing GrowSafe Beef (GSB) — an automated watering system that monitors the growth and health status of as many as 300 animals in pens at commercial feedlots. The company expects its GSB units will be ready for widespread commercial delivery within the next six months.

Since 2007, GSB units have been in use at feedlots co-operating with GrowSafe to validate the system’s capabilities. October marks another milestone in the validation process with the start of a trial involving 3,200 animals at two commercial feedlots in Alberta. The objective is to determine whether the GSB real time weight and water consumption measurements for individual animals can be built into a computerized mathematical equation (algorithm) to identify the onset of disease before it is visually spotted by the pen riders. It will also pinpoint the most significant measurements for disease profiling.

GrowSafe founder and mechanical engineer Camiel Huisma has no doubt that it’s possible to not only detect disease, but automatically treat certain conditions as well. For the past decade, he has been observing patterns of feed intake and beef cattle behaviour at GrowSafe feed bunks and GSB units. The company provides remote-access troubleshooting and support services for all GrowSafe installations and many clients allow GrowSafe to access their data for its own research purposes.

“Sick animals are often identified using GrowSafe technology up to four days in advance of visual signs and 24 hours in advance of a change in body temperature,” Huisma says. Animals that are getting sick will visit the bunk fewer times and consume less feed per visit.

Most people in the beef industry associate GrowSafe’s name with the feed intake systems that are now being used extensively to evaluate residual feed intake, however, the company’s history is actually rooted in detecting animal disease, he explains.

In the early 1990s, GrowSafe developed a computerized system to monitor and record the behaviour of individual ostrich chicks. At the time, that industry was facing a huge challenge with a chick survival rate of only eight per cent. The chicks were tagged with radio frequency transponders encased in Velcro bands and visits to the feed trough were recorded electronically. Healthy chicks would visit the feeder about 500 times a day. Within four to 12 hours of becoming ill the number of visits to the feed would drop off to about 50 times per day. Avian specialists were able to develop responsive protocols for early treatment and the chick survival rate rose above 90 per cent.

Huisma figured that if the technology worked that well for birds, it could be adapted for the benefit of the beef industry. A GrowSafe cattle system was developed using RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on the animals and antennas mounted above a water trough. The data from individual animal visitations to the troughs was automatically relayed to a computer. The software program converted the raw data to graphs for easy monitoring.

The year was 1993. Computer technology was in its infancy, let alone the capacity to wirelessly transmit data. RFID wasn’t even part of the industry’s vernacular. But, for an engineer who holds several patents for equipment across various industries, any new technological problem is a temptation too difficult to resist! Equipment was adapted and new inventions were required to transform a system that could monitor baby chicks in a controlled indoor environment into a sturdy unit that could withstand a feedlot environment, communicate wirelessly with a computer, including software to analyse the data and on top of it all, be economically viable.

It has already been 14 years since research scientist Dr. John Basarab with Alberta Agriculture at Agriculture Canada’s Lacombe Research Station first used a GrowSafe unit to determine how the drinking pattern of calves in the early stages of disease differed from healthy calves and show that GrowSafe technology could detect early signs of sickness in otherwise healthy looking calves.

HOW GSB WORKS

GSB records individual animal water consumption and weighs the animal each time it drinks.

To drink, the animal places its two front legs on an individual weigh platform placed in front of the water trough from which it is drinking. Each animal has a CCIA-approved tag with a unique RFID number that is picked up by antennas mounted in the equipment that relay the information to a computer, which could be located up to 50 miles away from the pen. The software in the feedyard computer is programmed to automatically identify poor performers, animals that require treatment and animals that are ready for market. When the software identifies an animal that may be getting ill or ready for market, it signals the GSB station in the pen to automatically mark the animal with spray paint the next time it comes to drink.

GSB is about profitability, says company vice-president Alison Sunstrum. The unit monitors water intake rather than feed intake because up to 300 animals in a pen can be monitored with one, six-trough watering station. “Measuring as many inputs as you can, for example, both feed intake and water intake, would be the ideal, however, there is a practical offset between what you need to measure and how much it costs,” Sunstrum explains. “Moreover, we have proven that we can correlate water intake to feed intake with a fair degree of accuracy. An animal might go off feed for more than a few days and go on to perform well, however, when an animal stops drinking for a day, you need to get into the pen and find it.”

The formal study to validate the feasibility of using weigh platforms at water troughs in a commercial setting to capture front-end body weight, and to determine the correlation between an animal’s front-end body weight and its total body weight, was conducted at a commercial feedlot in Alberta. This research was validated at the University of Missouri and published in The Professional Animal Scientist in 2007.

The weights collected from the scales are automatically compiled every day to calculate the front-end body weight for each animal. Frontend body weight was found to be highly correlated (0.97) with total body weight measured in chutes equipped with a scale. Further analysis determined that capturing the daily in-pen body weights could be used to calculate average daily gain and project future body weight.

The placement of the platform didn’t discourage the animals from drinking. The majority of animals drank and were weighed four times a day or more, which is consistent with published data from other studies evaluating animal drinking patterns in conventional settings.

The weigh platforms are adjustable so they can be raised if servicing is required. The unit has been designed so manure won’t build up around the scale. Typically, the system can stay in the pen for a full feedyard turn without requiring any manure removal.

MONITORING MARKET READINESS

Huisma’s passion for his work is evident when he discusses the power of having daily weights at hand without ever having to disturb the routine by running the cattle through the chute.

“Is the animal still growing or not growing?” Huisma asks. “A feedlot employee might look at a smaller animal and think that it’s a ways from being finished, but if it has quit growing, it is costing the owner to keep it there any longer,” he explains. “A larger animal may look like it is ready to ship, but if it’s still growing, it might benefit from additional days on feed.”

GSB was used to measure the weights of animals when they first entered the pen — most were between 500 and 750 pounds. After 130 days on feed the majority of animals were between 775 and 1,225 pounds. That doubling in the variation in weight, indicates a wide variation in animal performance.

Earlier work using the GrowSafe feed bunks to measure actual feed intake showed the distribution of profitability in the pen of animals marketed on a live-weight basis ranged from a loss of $105 to a profit of $155 per animal.

In general, data collected through the phases of validating the GSB system show that about 30 per cent of animals in a pen are poor doers. Another 30 per cent are above average and penalized when fed beyond the optimum market date.

“It appears that some feeding and management strategies are having detrimental effects on individual performance for some animals and that the growth of those animals could be enhanced by using alternative implant and finishing strategies,” Huisma explains. Early identification of animals that are falling behind or performing exceptionally well would allow the feedlot to manage and market them for optimal profitability. Looking into the future, there is great potential for a feedlot to be able to select specifigenetics for specifienvironments and end markets, he adds.

Using GSB technology to market animals when the cost of gain exceeded the value of gain resulted in an average increase in profit of $15.26 per head compared to a feedlot’s standard operating procedure in one study involving three large commercial feedlots in the U. S. in 2007-08.

Through collecting the individual carcass data, the study revealed that the use of GSB units resulted in loads of cattle with differing carcass composition. GrowSafe is now investigating carcass prediction models to identify animals that would benefit from additional days on feed.

A NEW FRONTIER FOR ANIMAL HEALTH

Treatment data from that market-readiness trial indicated that the number of times and length of time an animal visited a GSB watering station was not an accurate indicator of water intake nor impending illness. Cattle didn’t necessarily drink water every time they visited the GSB station, Sunstrum explains.

Last year, the company installed a frost-proof GSB unit with a new mechanism to measure water intake in an Alberta feedlot and followed the drinking behaviour and gain of individual animals for 66 days from October to December. The results indicated that there is a correlation between water intake and dry matter intake, feed efficiency and the onset of disease. Using this data a mathematical equation that correlates water intake with dry matter intake with about 85 per cent accuracy was developed.

That study laid the foundation for a trial this year to enhance the system’s disease profiling techniques and evaluate the economic benefit of automatic diagnosis in a commercial feedlot. It will provide the baseline to build an automated intervention algorithm and pull routine, and test the algorithm in real time. GrowSafe Systems is funding the work, which will involve a team of epidemiologists, immunologists and veterinary specialists.

In the not-too-distant future, Sunstrum says the GSB system will be able to identify animals in the early stage of disease and administer certain types of medication without human intervention. It will first be necessary to determine which diseases are consistently detected using the GSB system and which types of medications are appropriate and effective to deliver when the target animal comes to drink.

INDIVIDUAL ANIMAL MANAGEMENT

Studies by various researchers in recent years have shown that carcass value declines each time an animal is treated for health problems. Other trials indicate that the effectiveness of antimicrobials in the treatment of respiratory disease can depend upon the early recognition and treatment. A survey revealed that feedlots rely mostly on subjective, visual evaluation with minimal clinical measurements to assess the health status of animals.

An economic analysis using GSB technology to identify illness and early treatment showed a positive effect on net income of $12 to $23 per head across the pen. This was due to improved carcass quality as well as a savings on the cost of medications and labour. The GSB system freed up pen riders’ time to focus on animals that required intervention.

Overall, data collected by GrowSafe Systems indicate managing individual animals in a group setting has the potential to increase profit per head from many angles. Reducing the labour to identify market-ready animals could increase profit by $1 to $10 per head profit. Optimal marketing has the potential to add another $10 to $21 per head. The ability to manage poor performers could add $17 to $21, while optimizing grade and quality could add $10 to $30 per head. Carbon offsets are a consideration for some feedlots and the reduced days on feed could generate $2 to $8 per head, assuming the value of the offset is in the range of $11 to $15 per ton of CO2 equivalent.

ALBERTA-MADE SUCCESS

Huisma, Sunstrum and GrowSafe’s 15 employees are proud to be able to say that the GrowSafe feed intake system and GSB are Alberta-made products. The engineering and assembly of the electronic parts are carried out at GrowSafe’s shop west of Airdrie and the manufacture of other components is subcontracted to Alberta companies. There are now more than 50 major agricultural universities, research and seedstock centres worldwide that have installed the GrowSafe feed bunks to automatically monitor feed intake and animal behaviour. More than 30 graduate students have defended their theses and more than 250 have published papers based on data obtained through the use of GrowSafe technology. The uptake of GrowSafe technology by commercial operations has been a more recent phenomenon.

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