Using big data in beef production

Using big data in beef production

Highlights

  • GrowSafe Systems was one of the first companies in North America to use RFID in livestock
  • Continual in-pen weight monitoring can help feedlots better analyze animal growth trends and determine ideal marketing windows
  • A growing number of beef, sheep, goat and dairy producers around the globe are investing in GrowSafe systems
  • Connecting everyday things to the Internet we will further change many aspects of agriculture

Radio frequency identification (RFID) ear tags have been mandatory for Canadian cattle since 2006, however, this means of identification offers more than just traceability.

Data acquisition platforms combining RFID readers and other sensors make it possible to continually record individual animal weight, body temperature and behaviour. Tracking these indicators can assist in genetic selection for more feed-efficient animals, early illness detection and treatment, and optimal market timing for fed cattle.

Measure feed efficiency

GrowSafe Systems Ltd. based in Airdrie, Alta., was one of the first companies in North America to use RFID in livestock. In collaboration with Alberta researchers, the company developed technology to unobtrusively measure individual feed intake in normal cattle environments. The first of these systems were installed at Agriculture Canada research facilities in Lacombe and Lethbridge in 1999.

Data must be integrated and relevant in terms of whole-farm reporting or it won’t have much value

The specialized GrowSafe feed bunk automatically weighs feedstuffs every second, and captures the duration of each animal’s visit to the trough. The data is wirelessly transmitted to GrowSafe software, which then determines individual animal feed intake and analyzes the data for trends.

One use for this information is in residual feed intake (RFI) calculations. RFI is the difference between an animal’s measured feed intake and its expected feed intake requirements for maintenance and growth.

Feed-efficient animals eat less than expected and are assigned a negative RFI value. Inefficient animals eat more than expected and have a positive RFI value. Feed can represent more than two-thirds of all livestock production costs, so improved feed efficiency means big savings for cow-calf and feedlot producers.

Select for feed efficiency

Canadian beef breed associations, with the help of GrowSafe, are developing expected progeny differences (EPDs) for RFI, to assist in genetic selection for this trait. “RFI is moderately heritable,” says Dr. John Basarab, senior research scientist with Alberta Agriculture based at the Lacombe Research Centre.

Basarab and his colleagues have demonstrated that low-RFI cattle require 10 to 20 per cent less feed to achieve the same levels of growth and production as their high-RFI counterparts. Selecting for low RFI can also benefit the environment by reducing methane emissions by 25 to 30 per cent and lowering concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in manure by up to 17 per cent.

“It takes 15 to 20 years of dedicated genetic selection to improve methane emissions, and producers must consider other traits besides RFI,” Basarab admits, “but this change is cumulative and permanent.” Just one generation of selecting for low RFI can improve feed-to-gain ratio by one per cent in feeder cattle and replacement heifers, reducing feed costs and generating valuable carbon credits.

Monitor animal performance

GrowSafe measurement technology is also available to monitor individual animal activity at water troughs, useful information as an animal’s water intake and behaviour can be an early indicator of respiratory disease.

When compared to historical data, feed and water consumption profiles created by GrowSafe Systems can identify sick animals 24 hours ahead of a body temperature change, and up to four days before clinical symptoms appear.

Early illness detection and treatment can mean lower death losses, reduced antibiotic use and improved animal welfare. Continual in-pen weight monitoring can also be achieved, helping feedlots better analyze animal growth trends and determine ideal marketing windows. “We’ve measured wide variations in individual feedlot animal performance – ranging from a $300 loss to a $300 profit in healthy animals,” says Alison Sunstrum, GrowSafe co-CEO.

“Continuous data collection including feed costs, market prices and animal growth patterns can help us determine when cost of gain equals value of gain, allowing producers to sell at a point that maximizes profitability.”

Manage big data

A small on-farm GrowSafe system collects more than 70 million data points per day and routes it to a standard personal computer (PC). Simply collecting this information is not enough, however. “Occasionally data collection leads directly to insight, but more often than not it leads to the realization you simply don’t know what you don’t know.

Data must be integrated and relevant in terms of whole-farm reporting or it won’t have much value,” Sunstrum says. Managing and analyzing large data sets requires unique approaches, and GrowSafe has received international acclaim for its methods of managing big data in a farm environment.

“Each day, statistical process control routines and predictive learning algorithms automatically mine the data we collect, comparing individual animal and group patterns against historical data profiles for sick animals and rate-of-gain trends. When we connect on-farm PCs to our GrowSafe servers over the Internet, we can process vast amounts of sensor data into simple, easy-to-use information,” she explains.

“We offer our system as a turn-key analytics solution, and this will likely be the way of the future for most precision agriculture technology.” A growing number of beef, sheep, goat and dairy producers around the globe are investing in GrowSafe systems. At a cost of $6 to $12 per head, it can be an attainable decision-making tool for seed-stock producers and feedlots.

Future innovation

Sunstrum believes the pace of technological advancement will continue to progress rapidly. “The Internet of Things (IoT)[SD2]  is an awkward buzzword, but by connecting everyday things to the Internet we will further change many aspects of agriculture and everyday life. IoT is driving the cost of sensors, connectivity and technology down. Some IoT ideas – such as connected coffee pots – might not be overly practical, but on the farm IoT may see some of its greatest utility.”

As the cost of technology continues to decrease, there’s sure to be more competition in the market for individual animal monitoring devices. GrowSafe plans to stay ahead of the curve by improving its pasture feed intake and forage production monitors, developing a means of automated medication administration, and enhancing its ability to collect and analyze genomic and animal health data.

“The only limitation for the future will be our imaginations,” Sunstrum maintains.

From an AgriSuccess article (July/Aug 2016) by Trish Henderson  (@TrishHenderson3).

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