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Next generation cattle innovation

published: November 12th 2021
by: Kindra Gordon

The global pandemic is being blamed for several negative influences in the world, particularly related to economic and social issues. But, one positive outcome emerging is the accelerating adoption of technology disruptors to make enhancements to industries, businesses and everyday lives.
      Dan Thomson, chair of the Iowa State University Animal Science Depart-ment, pointed out during a virtual webinar this past year that the world was “going to wait a generation or two before adopting some technology, but now technology is being used,” and as a result, Thomson says, “It’s made us younger as a country and a world.”
    Likewise, international tech guru Aidan Connolly has said, “Waiting for it [the pandemic] to be over is a mistake.” Instead, his advice to business and industry is “start thinking about embracing change and doing things differently. It’s going to make us better in the end.” Connolly is CEO of Cainthus, an Ireland-based computer vision technology company that develops products for monitoring feeding events and cow behavior.
    Ultimately, technology is creating a “new frontier” and agriculture is a beneficiary.
    Connolly points to video conferencing like Zoom, as essential tools to communicate, educate and provide telemedicine services, particularly when the pandemic and other factors prevent in-person visits. Technology to host cattle sales – or buy food for take-out from a favorite restaurant – is also being credited with keeping the world’s economy afloat during the past year. And most economists agree that these technology changes and different ways of doing business are here to stay.
    As well, technologies of the future may help address and enhance supply chain challenges, lack of labor, and individual animal (or acre) management. Here, Connolly highlights many of the technologies being explored within the ag sector.
On the horizon
    Sensors. The use of sensors and wearable technologies are advancing to monitor individual animals, instead of working from herd averages. Wearable sensors on an animal’s ears, neck, legs or tail can now track and manage a cow’s health, detect illness or disease, and monitor cow comfort and welfare. As this technology progresses, the goal will be to circumvent negative effects before they impact performance and production.
    Artificial intelligence. Precision agriculture tools have already helped agriculture collect data, but without the ability to interpret and manage the data it can be useless. Artificial intelligence is being developed to sort through data and highlight the information that is important for the producer – and eventually may have the ability to automate some decision making based on benchmarks that are set by the producer. As well, facial recognition technology is being explored to dispense feed and specific nutrients to livestock as they come to the bunk or water trough. Companies like Connolly’s Cainthus are developing algorithms that can monitor cow activity, feeding, drinking and cow movement. On the crop side, artificial intelligence is already being used to determine maturity of some fruit crops, and thus, could be useful for grain production and harvest as well.
    Robots or autonomous. Robotic milking machines are a well-known application for robots in the dairy industry, and are increasing efficiencies and replacing human labor needs. As well, driverless tractors and equipment are moving toward reality. For the future, as robots are developed for additional livestock sectors, opportunities for medical and health assessments using trans-ponders or sensors are also being explored. Several experts believe that because these tools are a labor and time saver – they may get fast-tracked in agriculture.
    3-D printing. Printing machine parts is likely one of the most anticipated applications for rural producers and small businesses.
    Virtual reality. Defined as an environment that can be interacted within a seemingly real way through electronic equipment, virtual reality applications in agriculture include farm tours and veterinary (or employee) training. For instance, some veterinary students are using virtual reality to learn the reproductive and rectal tracts of the cow, enabling them to practice fertility examinations such as pregnancy detection or determine reproductive concerns, which can be safer for both animal and student. Virtual reality films of farms are also becoming more popular, with the potential to allow consumers to better understand where their food comes from.
    Blockchain. As consumers increasingly be-come interested in where their food comes from and how it is produced, blockchain can connect the supply chain from producer to consumer and allow for food traceability and safety.
    Drones. Ag applications for drones include inspecting the herd or fences or aiding in herding cows. Some cattlemen in Australia are reportedly already doing this. Combining drones with visual sensors can then survey land and measure pasture growth. According to research conducted in Belgium and reported in the Remote Sensing research journal, drones outfitted with sensing equipment were accurate at predicting forage height, biomass and forage quality. Additionally, drones with thermal imaging may allow locating and tracking cows in fields with dense cover, or to track animal temperatures and identify abnormal behavior.
    Augmented reality. Defined as the integration of digital information with the user’s environment in real time, this technology may allow producers an alternative way to monitor and evaluate livestock. For example, wearing specialized tech googles may allow a farmer to immediately see stats relating to each individual cow overlaid through the glasses into the farmer’s field of vision. This technology may especially benefit the veterinary field. It also has applications for training employees or even guiding machinery repair. One projection calls for augmented reality to rise from $2.4 billion in 2018 to $48.2 billion in 2025.
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