The birth of an industry

Precision Livestock Farming
With the growing population, farming needs to become more intensive to meet demands, but that may conflict with animal welfare goals. New tech solutions is one way to go.

Precision Livestock Farming is all about the adoption of technology to assist farmers and livestock producers through continuous, automated monitoring of their animals, and has been in testing throughout Europe over the past few years. 

Monitors animal health

Harry Blokhuis is a professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, working in the Department of Animal Environment and Health. His career has been focused on improving the welfare of animals, as well as working on assessment models and parameters to enable accurate, valuable assessment of animal welfare. This way, farmers can look to these parameters and improve their own practices.

Professor Blokhuis has been working with the EU-PLF, a European study into Precision Livestock Farming, and spoke to us about some the opportunities that it could present to the farming industry. 

“We try to find new ways to implement technology which can help us monitor animal welfare, and importantly this tech helps the farmers identify issues early, which in turn improves animal health and helps the farmer’s business. Cameras are a big part of the advances in this area. The imaging allows you to see how animals are grouped, which can highlight when animals move away from a certain area which can indicate there is an issue with a feeding line, for example. The farmer can then get an alert to their phones, which allows them to address the issue quickly and efficiently.”

More than identifying mechanical issues, technology has also advanced enough to be able to recognize physical issues with livestock. 

Professor Blokhuis continues: 

“The cameras can also be used to detect lameness by comparing the movement of livestock compared to that of a normal, healthy animal. Tech can also identify the position of cows, where the livestock has sensors. This allows us to see how active an animal is over the day, how far they’re moving, and again it can help identify potential illness or lameness. Sound recording also has a big part to play. The devices can detect coughing in the animals, which can alert the farmer several days sooner than he or she would be able to detect it without the help of technology. This allows early treatment, so problems are likely to be short lived and less severe.”

Tech forms new businesses 

There was another aspect of the research which was interesting in that it pointed to a new job sector within the farming industry. “

One farmer in the UK had one of these systems installed,” Professor Blokhuis says, “and now actually runs a business where he installs it for other farmers and monitors their animals using the system. It’s a great example of tech actually helping a new type of business to form. Some of the farmers also looked at the data in a less structured way than we anticipated, and some even developed their own algorithms to help them pick up changes in farm environments. Some more follow up is needed to see exactly what was done, but it was really interesting to see.”

Animal welfare is vital in the future, as more of the world’s population talk about it, and actively take it into consideration when thinking about their own diets. We see that in Europe in particular, the percentage of vegetarians is on the rise, and many more are consciously eating less meat. 

To meet increasing meat demands 

Professor Blokhuis adds: “The common discussion at the moment is that with the growing population, farming needs to become more intensive to meet demands, but that may conflict with animal welfare goals. To improve animal welfare we want to decrease intensity, so there’s a little conflict there, and it’s difficult to predict where the market will go. Of course, the main solution is for us in the western world to eat less meat, to allow the balance to even out all over the world.”