Precision livestock farming
Precision livestock farming (PLF) is the use of advanced technologies to optimize the contribution of each animal. Through this "per animal" approach, the farmer aims to deliver better results in livestock farming. Those results can be quantitative, qualitative and/or addressing sustainability.
Precision livestock farming (PLF) is made possible by monitoring each individual animal. Although this sounds very much like 21st century technology (which is indeed a key enabler), one could argue that precision farming is anything but new. It is not so long ago that most farmers knew each of the animals by name. Moreover, a farmer could typically point out who the parents were and sum up other important characteristics. Each animal was approached as an individual. Variety existed, but was no issue. In the past three decades, farms have multiplied in scale, with highly automated processes for feeding and other tasks. Not surprisingly, farmers currently work with average values per group. Variety has become an impediment to increasing economies of scale. This is where PLF comes in. Using modern information technology, farmers now can record numerous attributes of each animal, such as pedigree, age, reproduction, growth, health, feed conversion, killing out percentage (carcass weight as percentage of its live weight) and meat quality. When this information is available (and easy to apply – a subject to which we will return later), huge benefits can be derived. Culling, currently typically done on age, can now be done on the basis of reproduction values plus killing out percentage plus meat quality plus health. The result is significantly higher reproduction outcomes, with each newborn also contributing to a higher meat value. In addition to these economic goals, precision livestock farming supports societal goals: food of high quality and general safety, animal farming that is efficient but also sustainable, healthy animals and well being of animals and a low footprint of livestock production to the environment.
The regulatory and societal requirements to livestock farming are of growing complexity. This results in larger organizations and the use of complex machinery and IT systems.
Economic livestock farming
Due to academic studies, the requirements of an animal are well known for each phase of its life and individual physical demands. These requirements allow the precise preparation of an optimal feed to support the animal. The requirements are oriented on the required nutrition – providing more nutrition than required make no economic sense, but providing less nutrients can be negative to the health of the animal. The goal of precision livestock farming is to provide a mixture or ration that satisfies the animal's requirements at the lowest possible cost.
Quality and safety
Economic goals are an important factor in livestock farming, but not the only one. Legal bodies (such as the government and industrial bodies) set quality standards that are legally binding to any livestock producing company. In addition, societal standards are followed.
Quality is defined by the following characteristics:
- the quality of used ingredients
- the quality of animal keeping
- the quality of the processes
One example for issues with quality of ingredients is the (nowadays often illegal) use of meat and bone meal for ruminant animals.
Ecological livestock farming
Selecting the "right" ingredients can have a positive effect on the environment pollution. It has been shown that optimizing the feed this can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus found in the excrements of pigs.
The key to unlock the potential of precision farming is consistently collecting information of each animal. For this, we use two technologies: EID and Software.
EID stands for Electronic IDentification. Each animal gets a unique number (typically by means of an eartag), which can be read by a handheld "reader". For example, at birth, the farmer selects "Birth" from the menu on the reader, after which the interactive screen requests the user to read the tag of the mother. Next, tags are inserted in the ears of newborns and read. With this simple action, important information is recorded, such as:
- who is the mother
- how many siblings did she deliver
- what is the gender of each sibling
- what is the date of birth
The second piece of technology users need is software. By using readers which are wirelessly connected to the internet, data is processed immediately on servers, and the results are instantly available. In the past, people have used plain old readers. Sometimes, users forgot to sync these devices with their PC for many weeks. The result is that the precision farming data becomes outdated, and thus useless. Moreover, connected readers can download important information wherever you are. For example, if you want to check the passport of a certain animal, you simply read the tag and all relevant information is immediately visible on your handheld, over the mobile internet. Due to high computational requirements, precision livestock farming requires computer-supported tools. The following types (available for PCs and via Internet) are available:
- Automated Livestock Administration software
- Reproduction Optimization software
- Feed formulation software
- Quality management software
Precision livestock farming is all about recognizing the individual properties of each animal. That brings huge benefits to a farmer, but the buck doesn't stop there. Abattoirs, for example, can do exactly the same. More and more slaughterhouse deploy Slaughter Registration Systems. Such systems reads each tag at the moment of slaughtering, after which the carcasses are traced through the abattoir. When the ready-to-sell carcass is moved into storage, the tagnumber and other slaughterdata (such as weight, quality, fat and customer) are added to the carcass. The pertinent slaugherdata (carcass weight, quality, fat) are fed back to the farmer, who can use this data to improve his farming.
- Daniel Berckmans: Automatic On-Line Monitoring of Animals by Precision Livestock International Society for Animal Hygiène - Saint-Malo - 2004
- Gene M. Pesti, Bill R. Miller: Animal feed formulation: economics and computer applications Springer, 1993 - ISBN 978-0-442-01335-6
- Frank T. Jones: Quality Control in Feed Manufacturing Feedstuffs Reference Issue and Buyers - 2001
- Mark S. Honeyman: Environment-friendly swine feed formulation to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus excretion American Journal of Alternative Agriculture - Volume 8, pp. 128-132 - 1993