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How technology aligns animal agriculture with sustainability

Innovative solutions and regenerative principles are key.

At the Animal AgTech Innovation Summit this week, panelists discuss the opportunities and the expectations the livestock industry has to become even more sustainable in the future.

Panelists include:

  • Moderator Tafline Laylin, editor of The Daily Churn
  • Jordan Kraft Lambert, VP business development of Valley Ag Source, a dairy software and data analytics company
  • Andre van Troost, CEO of Lely, a Dutch machine manufacturer producing solutions for the dairy industry
  • Matthew Wadiak, founder & CEO of Cooks Venture Poultry, which offers pasture-raised heirloom chicken and 100% grass-fed and grass-finished beef to consumers

How can producers switch to regenerative ag practices on a large scale, considering the future demands on the food supply chain?

Wadiak: Conversion of land over to more sensible systems that reduce synthetic inputs and reduce petrochemical inputs is feasible. It can be done by growing crops that naturally grow in better rotations, which can be added to animal diets, avian diets, and pork diets while putting cattle back on grasslands as ruminants to feed an incredible number of people.

We can get to better forms of agriculture, but it won’t happen unless we improve the genetics of animals through selection criteria. Applying modern technology and knowledge will produce food that’s not only scalable and sustainable for the future, but is actually healthier and better for us as people by reducing synthetic inputs.

Kraft Lambert: Regenerative ag is a beautiful new movement, but it is also tried and true practices that have been going on for a long time. Feeding a high-efficiency, scientifically calibrated ration in barns is another way of doing that. Because of the diversity of biomes all over the world and the economies that we live in, taking inspiration from these different environments and different practices is really important. And then, each farmer needs to be able to determine what is right for their operation.

Wadiak: When you select an animal breed for digestibility to affirm certain feedstock, because that’s the available feedstock, then you get involved in a system where use of land and use of animal become interconnected. If that system happens to rely upon ammonium nitrate and dicamba and glyphosate, which are detrimental to the environment, then the system is going to be detrimental to the animal, too.

The solution is in combining ag tech and nature in a way that can be symbiotic to the biology of the soil, to the biology of the animal, and healthier for people. We spend a lot on synthetic inputs and the subsidies that promote them, and it would be better to put that money back in the farmers’ pocket and back into our bodies for healthier food that can be grown season after season without depleting soil.

Van Troost: We call ourselves farming innovators and we can only do so through substantial innovations. I believe that consumers of the future will become very critical of the animal proteins that they will purchase. They will want to know through traceability where it comes from, how the animal is treated, what the farms’ emissions are, etc. The consumers will have a huge voice and will choose those products that contribute to a healthier planet.

What will it take to change the narrative around the intrinsic sustainability of animal ag?

Kraft Lambert: We tell the truth, which means that we need to figure out what the truth is by collecting data that’s accurate. We need to remain open to the truth of what that data tells us and confront whatever that says. For example, we weren’t always so careful about manure going into rivers and streams 20 years ago, but we are really careful about that now, and I think it’s because we did a good job of embracing the truth of that situation.

Then, we can be creative in response to that truth. That is innovation, where we can mash up the best elements of a conventional system with a regenerative ag system and come up with something wholly new that meets the needs of humans in the future and is respectful of the environment. And we need to tell that truth in a way our consumers can hear it; translate the data we’re collecting to resonate with a consumer and be really consistent about that message.

What solutions allow us to pursue sustainability while boosting productivity?

Van Troost: I’m extremely excited about all the sustainability efforts taking place in the industry at this moment. We see vertical farming, organic farming, and urban farming increasing. We see the use of GPS and drones for precision arable farming and robots within the dairy industry to increase the milk yields and cow health. I also believe circular farming is an answer: that means farming with nature and not against it. Raw materials on farms need to be used more efficiently, food waste has to be kept to a minimum, and we must stimulate local production wherever possible.

Kraft Lambert: The incredible advancements in genetics around feed efficiency. Another space that I think is fascinating is the methane digester. It used to be that methane digesters were a good idea on paper but financially they didn't work. Over the last 10 to 15 years, a lot of people have innovated on the financial model and now they’re a desirable technology. I’m excited to see more innovators breaking trade-offs that have been obstacles to adoption in other areas.

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