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Precision livestock farming: technologies, benefits, and risks

Precision livestock farming
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Precision Livestock farming (PLF) is an innovative approach to raising animals that use modern technologies to gather data about every animal on a farm and use that data to optimize the management practices by either reducing inputs or increasing the overall farm productivity.

The recent developments in livestock-farming show three different problematic trends on a global scale. First of all, the demand for livestock products like meat, eggs, and dairy is rising almost exponentially with the ever-increasing global population and increasing affordability of these items. Secondly, the number of livestock farmers and the area of farmlands are reducing constantly for several years because of limited land availability. Finally, there is a rising concern over the harmful effects of livestock on serious global issues like global warming, deforestation, and overall environmental degradation. To address all these problems, precision livestock farming, which is still in its inception stage in the grand scale of livestock-farming history, has emerged as a viable and promising solution.

PLF allows farmers to increase their production, expand their farms, maximize productivity, and meet the growing demand for livestock products while being conscious and accountable for its environmental impacts.

Precision livestock farming technologies

Like all technologies, PLF technologies are constantly evolving with every passing day. Many are adopted and highly successful across numerous farms everywhere while some are in their early developmental stages. A few of the PLF technologies which are in application today are:

Precision livestock farming technologies

Automated weighing systems

Since weight is one of the most important indices of animal health and livestock productivity, an automated weighing system is a common technology that comes with every PLF application in one form or the other. The several forms of Automated-weighing systems are ‘Step-on scales’ and cameras integrated with software that gives the weight to individuals through machine-learning analysis of images and videos with a very little margin of error. Step-on scales are widely used in poultry to calculate accurate mean weight and walk-over sensors are used in pigs and bovines by passing them through a scale. On the other hand, measuring weight from image and video analysis is faster, easier, and more importantly, less intrusive. The information on the weight of farm animals is vital in livestock farming. For instance, by obtaining information on the weight and recording feed characters, a model can be established and used to make predictions and management interventions.

Low-cost feed and water intake recording

Water meters and different types of feed intake sensors are used to record information on the feeding and drinking behaviors of farm animals. This information, collected over a period of time provides a historical trend and expected levels of feed and water intake, which can then be used to trigger early warning systems in case the feeding and drinking habits of animals change, which might be due to several factors like disease or unfavorable condition.

Imaging solutions

As mentioned earlier, images and video analysis can provide near-accurate information on the weights of individual animals automatically. However, weight is just one of the many data we can obtain from imaging solutions. For instance, using 3D-camera technology and thermal imaging, we can study behavioral patterns like mounting and lameness, physiological conditions like respiration and temperature, growth trends, and environmental elements like carcass quality. Because they obtain a range of vital data and their affordability, Imaging solutions are the most common form of precision livestock monitoring and one of the initial steps of a step-wise PLF adoption approach on a farm.

Animal sensing systems

Sensors like accelerometers, pressure sensors, and temperature sensors fitted to animals or their environment and connected to a network establish an Internet of Things (IoT) which is the basic premise of integrated PLF. These sensors, either singly or in combination can be used to detect behavior patterns, environmental conditions, and animal health. For eg, sensors placed on the ear as well as on neck collars of cattle and pigs can measure and monitor feeding behavior, rumination, calving, estrus as well as body temperature. Sensors are also used to measure farm temperature, and aquaculture variables like pH, oxygen content, etc. One important thing to consider while using sensors in PLF is their discomfort or harm to the animals. Overall, real-time sensors combined with previous data are instrumental in detecting diseases and health issues and warning in advance.

GPS-tracking for extensive systems

The use of remote sensing technology like GPS-based tracking systems is applicable in grazing systems where animals cover a large area of land. Their movement patterns can be used to determine their grazing preferability while their real-time GPS locations can be used to track their positions. This makes cattle herding efficient and reduces cattle loss through theft or predator killings. In fact, GPS collars fitted on predators like big cats have been used to establish an early warning system in remote areas around the world. In conventional livestock farms, GPS-tracking systems make monitoring large herds of cattle significantly easy by establishing virtual fences and offer the farmers a great relief.

Proxy technologies for measuring methane emissions

Agricultural greenhouse gas emission continues to be a large contributor to the overall GHG emissions every year. Methane gas produced by bovines and pigs occupies a major chunk of the agricultural GHG emission. Technologies to measure methane emissions in farm animals are a great way of making animal farms more climate-sensitive and environmentally responsible. However, not many feasible technologies exist for individual farms, and some of the proxy technologies include chamber system, SF6 tracer technique, laser-methane detection, spectroscopy, etc.

Electronic identification (EID) solutions

Being able to measure the conditions, behaviors, and performance of each individual animal on a farm automatically is only beneficial if those individual animals can be identified easily so that their record can be kept separately and automatically. The traditional methods of livestock identification are intrusive and injurious to the animals and are still in practice all around the world. However, electronic alternatives like Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and advanced ear tags are efficient and automatic, removing the need for lengthy data entry works and a smooth flow of operations. EID holds all other aspects of precision livestock farming in place. It is also made mandatory in different countries.

Application of advanced data analytics to big data

As more and more technology is adopted in livestock farms, more and more data and data points are generated every day and it continues to rise exponentially. To handle that amount of data, the data analytics part has to be equally capable. Advanced data analytics for big data as well as machine learning capabilities are required to ensure that the data generated will be used to solve the pressing issues of animal health and animal farming.

Benefits of precision livestock farming

The benefits of PLF are wide and the types of benefits that can be obtained from a PLF system depend on the kinds of technologies used. However, some of the general benefits of PLF that any PLF system hopes to achieve are:

Precision livestock farming

Better animal welfare and health: Animal health must be at the center of livestock farming, not just because animal health translates into human health, but because every animal has an intrinsic right to lead a healthy life in good living conditions. Precision livestock farming systems identify this idea and by using technologies for disease detection and early warning systems, work for the improvement of animal health and welfare.

Optimized input levels and maximized production

PLF makes farming operations precise. This means the appropriate use of limited resources in case of inputs. By reducing costs and increasing the overall yield of animal products, PLF increases the profitability of livestock farms. The economic benefits of applying precision farming are significant and necessary to attract more farmers to livestock farming to meet the increasing needs for animal products.

Environmental benefits

Another major benefit of the PLF system is the reduction in the environmental impact of farming operations. Livestock farming is a major cause of environmental issues like global warming and deforestation. While technologies are in place to reduce methane emissions from farms, increasing the productivity of farms ensures that more results can be obtained in less land which contributes to reducing the massive deforestation done to livestock farming.

Reduced farm labor

As the number of farmers decreases and the number of animals on a farm increases, it is not possible for a farmer to keep track of all the animals. PLF makes it possible by reducing farm labor and giving access to critical and reliable information conveniently to the farmers. Moreover, automatic feeders, GPS-tracking, etc eliminate the need for many farm laborers. The reduction in farm labor means that the farm is more scalable and thus more productive and profitable.

Risks of precision livestock farming

Some of the challenges and risks associated with PLF are listed below:

  • Affordability is still a major challenge associated with the integration of expensive technologies on farms. Although studies show that PLF technologies make a farm more profitable, the diverse nature of each farm makes it a concern worth considering thoroughly before deciding to adopt PLF.
  • The major risk of PLF is that since it is often integrated and automatic, a system failure can cause devastating impacts, especially if the system is fully automatic.
  • Another associated risk is when the unit of animals is not individuals but a group of individuals like poultry where flocks are measured. In such cases, special individual needs can be overlooked.
  • The use of intrusive tags is a risk to animal welfare which is still used in many PLF practices and technologies.

Precision Livestock farming carries huge potential in solving the present-day pressing issues of livestock farming like the increasing demand for livestock products, decreasing farmer count, limited land availability, and environmental concerns. On an individual farmer’s level, the two most important things it does are that it increases his/her production and profitability and allows him/her to allocate the limited time in hand to only the important items. Precision livestock farming has technologies that are tried and tested and are commercially available for adoption by individual farmers according to their needs. Moreover, with rapid advancement in technology and big data analytics, precision livestock farming promises a future where food security is ensured along with animal welfare.

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