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8 Takeaways on How Smart Livestock Farming Can Bridge the Efficiency Gap

The livestock industry has a critical role to play in creating a secure, sustainable, and healthy food system. Yet, how the industry, specifically producers, deliver that product is under a level of scrutiny that it was not under in the past.

“We are almost a victim of our own success,” says Aidan Connolly, CEO, Cainthus. “When I was growing up in Ireland, the cost of food was about 20% of our income. It’s now down to 11% to 12%. In the U.S., it’s about 9%. Food is so cheap that people are now starting to think about other attributes about food – the so-called prosumer values. How does what they eat reflect on them, on their ethics, on their aspirations, and on what their friends think of them? Thus, it’s where all of these factors, like carbon footprint, animal welfare, etc. come into play.”

To better understand the implication new technologies could have on helping the industry become more transparent and answer the questions consumers have with very precise levels of information, the inaugural Animal AgTech Innovation Summit was held in San Francisco this week. The event brought together leading innovators and investors in the food and agriculture to share ideas and forge the right partnerships to bring new technologies and solutions to market.

During one of the sessions experts shared their insight on how smart livestock farming can bridge the efficiency gap. Below are eight takeaways from the discussion.

1. We need to be proactive rather than reactive.

While some producers are utilizing technology to better manage their animals, adoption varies by species.

“The dairy industry, for example, is much more progressive in terms of technology and adoption,” says Sri Raj Kantamneni, managing director, digital insights, Cargill USA. “Poultry is more fragmented, and swine is somewhere in between. In aquaculture, we see a lot of activity in southeast Asia and central America.”

Bottom line: Across all of these species there is a common theme – we have a lot of reactive data collection and activity and very little proactive or predictive technology being enabled. “A lot of what we are looking to influence in this space is how do we bring sensors, IoT, and data platforms to be predictive rather than reactive,” says Kantamneni.

2. We must improve the lack of investment.

“Compared with crops, the animal ag tech space is at least 10 years behind when it comes to technology investment,” says Mareese Keane, director of the Thrive platform.

While there are many factors that precipitated this, we are beginning to see movement in this area. “Today, I think there is an awareness on the livestock side that we need to invest in technology, information, and digitization,” Kantamneni says. “Over the last two to three years, we have seen a concerted effort of venture capitalists, investment firms, large companies, and start-ups coming together to talk about how we can all help with adoption.”

Bottom line: There is a lot more to do in terms of identifying which technologies can accelerate this at a pace that enables the farmer to not get confused.

“We are seeing a fairly broad set of technologies enter this space,” Kantamneni says. “If a 100 people show up on the farm and they each claim they have something unique, it becomes really confusing for the farmer. We can all play a role in how we bring a more unified approach to the farmer, and that means working to introduce platforms in a more cohesive marketplace because it’s not tenable to have 100 different solutions on a dairy farm, for example.”

3. We must break down data silos.

From a data silo perspective, Tom Bruenig has spent a lot of his career working directly with large dairy farms.

“When I came to them with a new technology, one of first questions would always be is ‘How does this work with the rest of the data I am generating on my farm?’ They already had a PC that ran the milking system, the dairy management software, and the feed management and ration software," says Bruenig, VP of global accounts and business development, Allflex Livestock Intelligence, USA

Producers were now being asked to add even more technology to that mix, which makes it difficult to make sense of the information coming from all of these different platforms. 

Bottom line: The onus is on the industry to look at how the industry can work together to seamlessly bring all these pieces together. “From our standpoint, we integrated with the dairy management software as soon as we could on day one,” he says,  “We formed partnership with companies that already had working wands and handhelds so the data could flow back and forth. But it continues to be an enormous issue and one we have to address.”

4. It can improve animal welfare.

With 20% of productivity losses stemming from disease, this is an area that could clearly use a reboot. While verinarian Paulo Loureiro says we will never be able to eradicate disease, technology could definitely improve this statistic.

“Animals will get sick,” says Loureiro, the leader, global commercial development and lifecycle innovation, cattle, equine, and precision livestock farming for Zoetis USA. “When they get sick, the first thing I need to do, if I know the cause and I know what is going on, is treat the animals.” 

Digital technology offers producers the opportunity to identify an issue before the animal exhibits clinical signs of disease and an area Zoetis is aggressively exploring.

“Before the animal gets a fever, something happens,” he says. “That animal’s behavior changes. It stops drinking. It stops eating. If we can identify those signals before the animal shows clinical signs of disease, we can intervene. Our company is investing heavily in this technology on our research farm and collaborating with partners to see, in the real world, how it can help us prevent disease.”

If they can identify animals that are underperforming, it may allow producers to change the dynamic in the pen.

“We also have to remember that producers want a simple, economical solution that solves an issue,” Loureiro says. “If you go to a dairy farm today, the cow looks like a Christmas tree. It has something in its ear. It has something on its neck. If you ask  farmers if they like it, they don’t. They want it simple.”

Connelly points out that producers are also dealing with extraordinary levels of variability on their farms. "“We are dealing with a lot of imprecision. We are asking for details on factors we don’t have control over right now," he says. 

Moving toward precise agriculture will not be an easy feat, but real advantages are being realized. A well-cared-for animal, that is tracked from pasture to plate, can give producers an advantage when it comes to marketing their animals.

“We are beginning to see top producers drive animal welfare. A growing number of producers are now recognizing that if they can provide a branded product that has unique qualities, and they can verify how that animal was raised, they are filling a supply chain where people are willing to pay more for that information,” Bruenig says. 

Bottom line:  “Understanding exactly what’s going on inside of that animal is where the massive potential is for transforming and disrupting and making this business completely different,” he says. “Clearly, a lot of these technologies have the ability to deliver on that.”

"When an animal is beginning to get sick, few can see those signs," says Loureiro. "Think of the implications some of this technology could have if it could catch those signs before an animal shows clinical signs."

5. A start-up must understand what the producer needs.

Dane Kuper admits that knowing how far to go when trying to understand your customer is a difficult question to answer. Yet, it is a challenge his start-up is working to overcome.

“We have 50 farmers that I would view as being deeply in partnership with us,” says Kuper, cofounder & CEO of Performance Livestock Analytics. “They are the ones who deploy technology first and help us work through the problems. They explain to us when the technology isn’t giving them what they need. I think you need that level of lead user, that partner customer who will really help you work the kinks out.”

That said, some of what start-ups, like Performance Livestock Analytics, are trying to imagine is a solution to a problem that farmers may not even realize they have. 

“I think you have to be open to that level of innovation as well to realize that it isn’t going to be business as usual,” Kuper says. “These technologies will change the way producers behave in a dramatic manner that they probably can’t even conceive at the moment.”

A start-up must also not underestimate the producer.

"A number of start-ups believe that producers are dumb and when producers realize how dumb they were before these start-ups arrived on their farm, they are going to greet these start-ups with open arms and are going to write them a check and thank them for saving them from themselves," says Connolly. "Producers are not going to be all warm and fuzzy about that approach."

That lack of understanding their customer has been a major roadblock for many start-ups.

"While we could easily make a start-up feel badly about themselves and tell them not to come back to the farm, who loses in that situation. Does the start-up lose? In the short term, of course they do. As an industry, we lose longer term," Connelly says. "The industry as a whole has to try to be the bridge between those technologioes and the efficiencies we really need to succeed in the future."

Bottom line: A start-up has to be open to both understanding and getting feedback from farmers on how to make its innovation better, how to make it simple, and how it saves a producer time. But the industry also must be open to bridging that knowledge gap when it comes to the customer the start-up is looking to serve.

6. Digital agriculture can impact sustainability.

Kantamneni believes improving sustainability is where start-ups can play a pivotal role and help accelerate things. For example, in the shrimp space, Cargill is doing a lot of work in Equador. It has partnered with a firm that is helping bring over 215,000 hectares of shrimp farms onto the grid. 

“In Equador, most of the power is hydro, but many of these farms are running diesel pumping stations and aerators,” he says. “There’s an opportunity in that start-up partnering with us to really accelerate what GPS can do to electrify the rural community in Equador.

Ultimately, we all recognize the carbon footprint agriculture has and projects like this that enhance production efficiency are going to accelerate how we address the sustainability challenge.

“Productivity in this space has tripled since 1950 with a 1/3 less manure and waste,” says Bruenig. “It is a journey and I think that’s what everyone needs to remember. There isn’t a start or stop, and efficiency is a good basis.

Bottom line: Sustainability is really about efficiency. These new technologies give producers the ability to be more efficient on a number of levels.

7. The technology needs to be affordable for all.

Loureiro believes we need to ensure that gaining access to this technology means it has to be cost effective for all producers. We cannot make it cost prohibitive so that only a few farmers are able to adopt this technology. it also has to be easy to use in any environment whether it’s indoors or outdoors, which is a big challenge today.

Bottom line: “The world is very big and we have to think beyond borders. We need to create technology that can be taken to different parts of the globe and not just to the U.S.,” he says.

8. The industry needs to better engage with innovators.

Many companies like Cargill and Zoetis realize that they don’t have all of the answers to solving the problems that producers face. It’s also why collaboration seemingly has become the new buzzword across the ag tech industry including animal ag tech.

“We are getting much better at engaging with innovators because we recognize that by working with others, we can transform an idea more quickly and with speed,” Kantamneni says.

While many companies have a team that vets the potential fit of a start-up, it’s also on the start-up to do its due diligence to find that connection. 

“Try to connect with an animal health company or with a farmer to ensure you are on the right track before you go too far with an idea,” says Loureiro.

Bottom line: It takes a village to get some of these ideas off the ground and on the farm.

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