This article is part of our special report Next generation livestock farming: technology and tomorrow’s farmers.
For many decades, policies for agriculture, research and development, education and training, and consumer demands have influenced the use of technology in farming as well as farm practices.
Roxane Feller is the Secretary-General of AnimalhealthEurope.
Previously farmers looked to new technologies and other innovations as a way to reduce costs and increase farm efficiencies. That thinking changed significantly as a secure supply of safe and affordable food became standard practice for Europe’s farmers. And now, there is a tacit agreement – acknowledged or not by the general public – that food be produced using techniques that conserve natural resources, limit environmental pressures and pay greater attention to rural viability and animal welfare. Simply ensuring our safe supply of affordable food alone is no longer enough.
Europe’s farmers are faced on a daily basis with having to balance economic efficiency with environmental and social sustainability. They can be supported in this balancing act through education, training, financing and through access to new technologies, but most importantly farmers can be supported through the acceptance that different practices using technological advances can co-exist with ecological preservation.
For many years now farmers have been using robotics to help ease the workload such as robotic milking and feed distribution machines. New technologies are going even further today, with the digital transformation in animal health offering alternative practices to farmers collectively known as Precision Livestock Farming.
Breakthroughs in detection and monitoring tools, robotics and artificial intelligence, alongside advanced diagnostics and vaccines technologies are set to become essential tools for the future, by supporting farmers in optimising animal care, ensuring better traceability, and reducing environmental impacts.
For example, AI-assisted digital tools serve as a remote assistant to improved herd management. Using wireless sensor networks these technologies can assist the farmer in monitoring grazing animals’ activities from diverse locations throughout the day. Remote monitoring of activity and tracking of movement gives the farmer 24/7 oversight of the herd.
Working directly with their smartphones, farmers can also keep a digitalised scoring of their animals’ weight, size, and other indicators. Body condition scoring of animals – a commonly accepted indicator of health and well-being – can be challenging when farmers are faced with visually scoring entire herds objectively and accurately. With new digital technologies, data indicators are regularly tracked and can be analysed via apps, enabling farmers to make better and more timely management decisions, such as measuring feed intake or addressing health needs.
Feed techniques can also be enhanced using sensing technologies via smart machines that match nutrient supply precisely with the nutrient requirements of individual animals, based on real-time feedback from the sensors. Precision feeding can help improve resource use efficiencies for the farmer, while ensuring good nutrition of the animals.
By optimising the management of animal health through digitalisation farmers can reduce environmental impacts through more precise uses of feed and water, by reducing food losses and waste, and with a more targeted use of treatments.
What needs to be clear is these technologies should not be about the farmer spending less time performing standard husbandry checks and more time on the smartphone. Instead, with real-time data being collected, analysed and delivered to the farmer on the phone or tablet, this makes management of the animals slightly easier and less time-consuming. That’s extra time that can be dedicated to other tasks around the farm, or extra attention that can be given to environmental stewardship.
Innovative farming practices do not have to be opposed to nature. Data-driven management decisions with Precision Livestock Farming techniques support farmers in sustainable food production. And these digitally-enhanced animal health management practices help farmers to produce enough food on existing farmland, while preserving surrounding lands and biodiversity.
It is important to recognise nevertheless, that sustainable use of such technologies requires a high level of farmer skills and management to utilise them to their full potential. Access to such cutting-edge technologies and the knowledge and skills to use these tools will support an innovative, dynamic and modern livestock sector that will positively contribute to the EU Green Deal while also helping to attract new talent to Europe’s rural areas.