The following article was initially published on March 31, 2019 via Forbes.
Beef seems to have had a rough year. A growing body of research suggests that consumers can help mitigate the impacts of climate change by eating less meat from ruminant animals like beef and lamb. Despite the raging debate about beef’s impacts, the data shows red meat isn’t going the way of the congealed salad anytime soon. Plenty of consumers in the west and growing numbers of people in the developing world want to eat beef, so it’s critical to make beef production as sustainable as possible.
It may surprise consumers to learn that sustainable and high-tech farming can go hand in hand, as more growers and producers rely on data-gathering technology like sensors and robotic milking machines.
Barbara Jones is the director of the Southwest Regional Dairy Center at Tarleton University in Stephenville, Texas. She studies cow comfort in dairy farms and technology in dairy systems. “Precision technology is a really rapidly growing [area of technology] we can use to prevent disease and make really timely and informed on-farm decisions.”
While it may seem like technology can create a disconnect between farmer and animal, Jones says often the opposite is true. “It’s not really our fault but humans are just terrible at detecting disease within cattle” she explains, because cows are a prey animal who tend to hide the symptoms of their disease.
Brad Heins, who is an animal sciences researcher at University of Minnesota, says that technology can often improve animal welfare on farms. “Sometimes you’ll notice that the computer will indicate something may be wrong before you see clinical signs in a cow or calf [but] you still need a person to actually go treat the cow…it can take a long time, especially if you have a larger farm, to look through all of your cows,” so this helps ensure that a sick animal gets treatment faster.
More farms across different sectors are turning to data analytic software platforms to help farmers take those huge swaths of data and turn them into action. Land O’Lakes, for example, has developed a program for wheat and other commodity crop farms. Farmers Business Network also works to fill this niche, by providing farmers with a website for sharing information and recommendations within the farming community.
“We have all of this health information, all of this milk information all of this business information,” she says of new technologies on farm like “FitBits for cows.” “We’re not really doing a great job of combining all of those,” says Jones, of dairy farms, which she says tend to be walled off in their own data silos. “Having an analytical platform that could bring all that together would be so helpful.”
Performance Livestock Analytics, a company based in Ames, Iowa, has created a cloud-based platform to help beef producers improve decision-making about nutrition and animal health. “It’s challenging,” says Dane Kuper, CEO of the company, describing the business of beef. “You have a whole industry that’s being challenged more so than it’s ever been challenged to provide that traceability and transparency and become far more effective in reducing our carbon footprint.”
Kuper says the software provides the farmer with a recipe for what to feed each head of cattle, but also that the data is just the starting point. “It’s so much more than just feeding the animal,” he says. “It’s the buying and selling decisions, and how they look at benchmarking themselves…as compared to other producers on our platform.”
Large-scale farms often have an efficiency advantage over smaller operations, because they’re able to look at larger animal population numbers and make decisions based on a larger pool of data. Often smaller operations don’t have the bandwidth, whether literal or metaphorical, to connect with other farmers and get a sense of best practices for the industry. “For a small or midsize family farm, you may have an advisor or a consultant, but a lot of times they don’t know how well they’re doing compared to what they should be doing,” says Kuper. That’s the niche that PLA is aiming to fill.
“We’re able to provide that intelligence better but also provide them an experience to where they can see their operation…and give them recommendations on where they’re performing high, where they’re performing low and…where they can [improve],” says Kuper. “This morning we had over a thousand cattle operations that woke up and looked at their cattle in real time.”
For more articles on technology, farming and food, click here.