The cattle farmers’ guide to harvesting technology
Where would we be without the humble cow? In addition to providing the milk that goes on millions of people’s breakfast cereal every morning, our bovine friends also provide the meat for some of our most popular dishes.
The four-legged grazers also play a major role returning nutrients back into the soil and helping with fertilisation, and they help conserve habitats and landscapes globally.
But cattle farmers are facing a whole herd of issues, from climate change to animal welfare challenges, and current statistics are looking bleak.
The high temperatures of the last few years have led to drought-forced herd liquidation, causing the beef herd to become smaller than it needs to be. Beef production is forecast to be down 15-16% from the 2022 level (28.9 million) by the time we reach 2025 — possibly the lowest level since 1993, when BSE (refered to some as ‘mad cows disease’) reduced herd numbers.
In dairy farming, lame cows are also a problem, impacting already restricted housing conditions. According to animal welfare charity the RSPCA, disease and infertility — likely caused by stress, poor bodily condition and nutritional deficiency — are also leaving farmers short-changed.
The challenges all add up and have impacted the end consumer, with the threat of empty shelves in supermarket aisles. Fewer cattle also raise questions about the maintenance of arable land.
There’s also a big push from government to farmers to get cattle out onto pastures, both from a welfare perspective but also to reduce methane levels which are compounded when cattle are kept inside. Farmers find themselves restricted financially, by the weather, and also not all land is graze-proof.
So, can technology provide a solution? This is where the connected cow trotts in.
The virtual fence
Some farmers are working closely with tech start-ups and universities to trial and develop new products and software that can addresses some of these issues.
Nofence, an eight-year-old Norwegian start-up covering Norway, Spain, the UK, and most recently the US, spent years refining a ‘virtual fence’ solution for farmers to help with land conservation and the wellbeing of cattle.
The idea behind the virtual fence grew from its Norwegian founder and former goat farmer, Oscar Hovde, while unsuccessfully trying to pen-in his herd of goats. It was created to solve the challenge Hovde faced in building physical fencing on mountainous land, using tracking technology.
Each animal in a herd is fitted with a collar which uses GPS satellite technology to track its location. Through the Nofence software application, farmers then leverage this to map-out an area of land that needs to be grazed. The farmer is sent a notification if, and when an animal reaches the zones’ border.
“When an animal makes an approach to that virtual boundary an acoustic warning is the first line of defence,” says John Smout, Nofence’s UK and Ireland senior sales manager. “Most animals will turn around on hearing that warning.”
With a 20 year-long career in agriculture, Smout has overseen the robotic influence of rotary parlors in dairy farming, and he has also worked in the animal hygiene space at Rumenco, manufacturing chemicals used to kill different types of pathogens.
According to Smout, the collar also automatically collects data from each animal to see where it’s been spending most of its time. Farmers can assess individuals’ data against the entire herd, and they can also change the dimensions of that virtual fence at any time.
“You can move the boundaries that best suit the weather conditions, the time of year, the stocking density that you’ve got…” And these boundaries can be moved to grazing lands that wouldn’t have previously been fit for use.
Legally farmers are not allowed to place fencing on coastline, but even with a fence animals could break it, or wear-and-tear could cause it to become unstable. Fencing is also hugely expensive and it’s a blocker for wildlife, Smout says.
From a welfare perspective, animal data also allows farmers to keep track of cattle activity. A notification is sent if an animal stops moving for four hours or more, allowing farmers to detect its exact location, what type of terrain it’s in, to prepare the resources needed to help.
Smout adds that virtual fencing is safer and more resilient than conventional fencing which can injure animals. “An animal has to make an approach to the boundary 20 times before it changes from ‘teach’ mode to ‘normal’ mode.
“In teach mode, when an animal makes an approach, as soon as they turn their head 45 degrees the acoustic warning switches off — when it’s in normal mode, they have to turn their head and body to a higher degree before it’s silenced.”
The Norweigan start-up carried out multiple tests looking at different animals’ cortisol levels when fitted with the collar. There was no change. According to Smout, Cattle tend to adhere to the acoustic warning within two days.
‘Fitbit for cows’
Across the North Sea, in the UK, the University of Essex is working alongside Reading University and a working farm in Colchester to develop a fitbit for cows. It’s essentially a collar — similar to Nofence — that uses tracking technology to give farmers real-time insights into cow activity.
While Nofence’s collar is targeted towards beef herds, Dr Kareemah Chopra at the University of Essex, who is involved in the project, says this collar is designed for dairy cattle, and similar technology is also being tested on zoo animals.
“It can help farmers detect signs of illness, it can predict carving and it can help optimise housing conditions.”
It also gives researchers scientific insight into the behaviour of cows 24/7.
The technology behind the collar was developed from UK-based remote monitoring solutions firm Omnisense. Edd Codling, professor in mathematical biology at the University of Essex, also involved in the project, says the original application for this technology was for elderly people in care homes.
“They’d wear these sensors around their neck for two reasons: to locate residents, but it also has a fall detector which measures activity and acceleration. If you suddenly fall down you’d get this big spike in acceleration which would set off an alarm and someone would go to help. They then developed this technology for animals.”
According to Chopra, it uses local positioning system (LPS) data to monitor space use of individuals which help detect lame cows:
“Lame cows spend less time feeding, use less area of a barn than healthy cows, and if one individual that’s usually really sociable suddenly isolates itself from the herd, that could indicate there’s a problem. We then prompt the farmer to go and check on that.”
The collar also monitors cows’ microclimate within barns which can be used to inform housing design and management. Codling says that cows bunch together at higher temperatures which is a danger to the animal when it’s hot.
During last year’s heatwave, temperatures in milking parlours topped 40 degrees celsius. This is a major welfare issue for the cows, who also produce less milk when they are stressed. “It’s unknown why cows do group together, but having that insight can help us research to understand their behaviour and inform farmers,” says Codling.
“If it’s a social reaction we can disrupt the herd to stop them doing it, if it’s due to the environment we can put a fan in a different location.”
The university is also combining Omnisense sensor technology with a tail sensor on a cow. More tail lifts indicate a cow is in calving.
Sensor technology can also provide insights into the social networks of a herd. Positioning data shows how long individuals spend next to each other and this interaction can be assessed over time. Farmers can leverage this data for decisions such as how to re-group cattle and predict what effect it might have if they need to remove a cow for treatment, for instance.
Codling says the sensor has no negative impact on the cow at all, in fact he says it’s the other way around… “because it’s on the body, the temperature of the animal can effect some of the signals.”
Milking tech spend
Smout and Chopra say farmers must list the quantifiable benefits that that technology brings to their business and what their business is trying to achieve. It’s about making sure that technology fits into the plan of the business going forward.
Smout says: “This means putting in the hard yards going through and fully assessing your sites and looking at how your animals graze but also considering what you want the technology to achieve and where it could best fit.
“Make sure the technology’s proven, what research has been done on it? Does it meet what you want it to achieve?
Also calculate the return on investment. “Yes, there needs to be a tick for animal welfare, but there’s got to also be a tick for farm economics,” says Smout. Farmers also need to be able to access back-up and support for the technology they’ve invested in so they can understand how best to use it.
Businesses must make sure their interfaces are user-friendly for farmers, and also that their technology isn’t automating decisions. “It’s important to try and use technology to compliment traditional farming, rather than replace it,” says Chopra.
“Technology also involves data and that’s the driving force of farming. It’s very scientific but now, with margins being so tight, whether that’s on milk or beef production, you need to be able to access that data. It’s the true winner of farmers making profitable decisions.”
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