The Smart Barn: Precision Agriculture in the Dairy Industry

The growing global demand for animal protein has resulted in an increased number of animals raised on Canadian farms. Further consolidation and integration of various livestock industries have caused an increase in the number of animals per farm, coinciding with a decrease in the availability of quality farming staff. Precision agriculture, the use of automated mechanical and electronic equipment to reduce human labour, is being adopted rapidly, as farmers are now able to continuously monitor and access animal-level data anytime, anywhere. Precision agriculture has become integral to farm operations including animal identification, feeding, milking, reproductive management, egg collection, cleaning and hygiene, as well as managing barn environmental conditions. As a result, farmers are saving time, require less labour, and improving yield, safety and efficiency. The improved traceability of products, as well as selective ability for preferred farm management practices. Ultimately, the true benefit of precision livestock management is the various technology's ability to monitor individual animals, allowing farmers and veterinarians to tailor services directly, and not to the entire animal population.

What kind of precision livestock products are being used today?

Animal Identification and Behaviour:
Animal identification is an integral part of livestock management, as it is important for production and performance records, biosecurity, health and reproduction management, and financial bookkeeping. Classically, branding was the most unique way to identify an animal, but the inability to distinguish individual animals, time to brand, as well as animal welfare concerns, have made this system archaic. The most common identification technologies are based on Radio Frequency Identification systems (RFID) or accelerometers.

RFID: This system is comprised of a transponder, receiver, and software that communicate through a digital network. The transponder is a tag worn by the animal usually in the ear, is activated by the signal broadcasted by the antenna on the receiver. The antenna emits radio frequency signals in a relatively short range, and once in communication with the transponder, can identify the animal, and then record information such as; time spent feeding, amount of feed/water consumed, time spent milking, or animal weight. Once the data has been accumulated and stored, the processing software turns this information into recognizable and useful format for the farmer.

Accelerometers: An accelerometers is an electromechanical device that will measure acceleration forces, and is able to determine the spatial orientation of the device, as well as the object's moving speed. This information can be translated into quantification of the animal's physical behaviour, and can be built out into a daily activity profile. Individual accelerometers worn by each animal allows the software to build a specific behaviour index for each animal, allowing farmers and veterinarians to manage and provide proactive health services for animals based on any deviation from their baseline index. In livestock husbandry, an animal's behaviour profile has been used to determine health status, reproductive readiness, weight gain and physical profile, as well as welfare indicators, such as amount of movement, and standing and lying time.

Lely VectorAutomatic feeding systems have become increasingly popular across the farming landscape, due to their ability to ease workload, save time, and manage larger groups of animals. Automatic feeders are popular in poultry and swine production, as well as dairy and beef farming. Farmers have reported that their animals are less stressed during feed delivery, as less dominant animals are able to have improved access to more quantities of better feed. Moreover, automatic feeders are able to complement the animal's natural behaviours as the cows are able to eat at their desired times, as opposed to the farm worker's schedule.

Automatic milking systems have been commercially available since the early 1990s, and have been considered to be one of the biggest innovations in the dairy industry. Automatic milking systems use laser-guided teat position sensors, a robotic arm for automatic teat-cup application, and a gate system to control cow traffic. The voluntary milking system allows the cow to decide her own milking time and interval, as opposed to being milked as part of a group at set times. A large majority of farmers have viewed their transition to automatic milking systems as successful, citing decrease mastitis and lameness rates, as well as improvement in farming work-life management.

Lely AstronautInnovation has been sweeping through the livestock industry at increasing speeds, with every component of farming becoming increasingly automated. The technological adaptation has changed how the farmers care for their animals, as they are now integrating large amounts of data to make individual based decisions. Ultimately, farm management has shifted from an art to an app, with more accessible data. In the second blog series, I will expand on the shifting relationship between the farmer and animal through increased husbandry innovation, and how animal welfare, consumer perceptions, and farming management will help guide the future of livestock innovation.


Sources:
Hamandani, H. and Khan, A.A., 2015. Automation in livestock farming-A technological revolution. International Journal (Toronto, Ont), 3:1335-1344.
Tse, C., Barkema, H.W., DeVries, T.J., Rushen, J. and Pajor, E.A., 2017. Effect of transitioning to automatic milking systems on producers' perceptions of farm management and cow health in the Canadian dairy industry. Journal of dairy science, 100:2404-2414.


Liam Polsky 
Analyst, Animal Health

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