Precision Livestock Farming: Developments & Trends

Precision Livestock Farming: Developments & Trends

10 March 2014

A summary of the 6th European Conference on Precision Livestock Farming 2013
by Jess Roberts, Lincoln Agritech, Lincoln

The development and use of Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) is growing overwhelmingly. This development is pushed by external and internal pressure onto livestock production worldwide.  Any livestock producing enterprise must overcome the following challenges: production is economical viable, maintaining animal health and welfare, reducing unwanted environmental impacts and ensuring that human health is not compromised. Precision Livestock Farming aims to assist with new tools and equipment as well as software systems for livestock monitoring and management to overcome these challenges.

The 6th European Conference on Precision Livestock Farming (ECPLF) was held in Leuven, Belgium from the 10-12th of September 2013. The conference was held in Provincial House and was combined with the final conference and workshop of several ongoing EU projects: the BioBusiness project, the ALL-Smart-Pigs project and the EU-PLF project, all focused on development of Precision Livestock Farming (PLF).  As a variation to previous conferences, the 6th ECPLF was not conducted together with the equivalent European Conference for Precision Agriculture that focuses on plants.

The 6th ECPLF conference was structured into major plenary sessions and concurrent sessions based primarily on livestock type. Major topics included cattle (primarily dairy), pigs, poultry, horses, sheep and goats, aquaculture and environmental impacts of livestock farming. The aim of this conference was to contribute to knowledge exchange through productive discussions to progress PLF, specifically combining technology and biological sciences.

This conference brought together PLF scientists from many countries and disciplines. Over 200 attendees were present from six continents, presenting oral and poster presentations on a range of topics from technology development to economics in PLF. While many of the attending researchers are experienced in enterprises structured differently than in New Zealand, such as housed vs non-housed dairy cattle, there was still significant relevance to New Zealand livestock production.

Some of the key presentations focused on:

  • Israel is becoming a leader in Precision Agriculture and Precision Livestock Farming, with a high adoption of the related technologies by Israeli farmers. Futher to this the company Afimilk is a major commercial company focused on dairy technology and the development of on-farm sensors and herd management tools (Afimilk is supplier of the world’s largest turn-key dairy farm project with 12 dairy farms and 32,000 milking cows; to be completed 2014 in Vietnam!).

    • The combination of an autodrafts, scales and RFID for improving sheep production. This technology improves labour efficiency for example allowing 500 sheep to be weighed by one person and also for improving flock management. Automatically recording weights of sheep during lush and nutrionally stressful periods can be used to determine resilient sheep, leading to the division of animals into management flocks, for example, during winter sheep with more resilience can be grazed in lower quality pastures without a significant production loss. The research presented was undertaken in the high country of Scotland, although similar research also occurs for sheep in drought prone areas of Australia and there is great potential to expand this use of technology to other enterprises and regions.

    • Pasture intake of dairy cows can be determined by grazing time, bite counts, grass height and approximate nutrition. Bite counters and grazing time monitoring devices are available, however actual pasture intake determination is inexact. This has lead to research on the development of a model of grass amount per bite, with the aim of assisting farmers to determine energy balances

    • Sub-Acute Ruminal Acidosis (SARA ) can be a major issue for cattle producers. Research into the development of a SARA test by wireless rumen pH telemetry for early detection is promising.

    • The development of new software, TrackLab, specifically designed for spatio-temporal animal behaviour monitoring. Noldus Information Technology of the Netherlands have developed a software package which utilises sensors such as GPS and accelerometer data to determine the behaviour of animals including cattle and Canada geese. This software is commercially available and is suitable for both farmers and researchers.

    • Both image and sound monitoring of livestock is growing. There is potential for image analysis for the improvement of animal health and welfare. Two highly pursued research topics utilising image analysis are lameness detection of dairy cattle and detection of fighting piglets to improve animal health and welfare. Sound detection research is based on detecting stressful calls of pigs or calves / cows and as a distraction from negative behaviour such as the fighting of piglets.

Many specific challenges were highlighted at the conference and thus, are the basis for much of the current research. Some of these included:

  • Lameness in dairy

  • Aggression in pigs

  • The high use of antibiotics in livestock production

  • Animal welfare from the consumers perspective, automated tracing of production information

  • The rate of developing a commercially viable technology. On average it takes 10 years for development of a new PLF technology with only 2 out of 13 prototypes commercialised

  • The cost of technology and therefore the economic viability of implementing technology of farm.

  • Precision Livestock Farming technologies must involve farmer consultation

  • Land-use is for agriculture is limited with an estimate of possible land  expansion only ~4%

It was exciting to see the broad range of technology being already adapted into livestock farming enterprises. Because of the broad range of topics there was a high level of inter-disciplinary networking and interaction of the delegates which is exactly what is needed to advance Precision Livestock Farming.