Precision livestock farming
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Precision Livestock® farming (PLF) is the use of advanced technologies to optimize the contribution of each animal. It is a tool for management of livestock by continuous automated real-time animal monitoring to improve production / reproduction, health and welfare and environmental impact. 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. Large animals are tracked "per animal", however other animals, such as poultry, are so far yet tracked "per flock". The whole flock in a house is tracked as one animal specially in broilers. It has been shown that living organisms (humans, animals) are very Complex, Individually Different, Time-varying and Dynamic. Scientifically shorted as C.I.T.D. systems . PLF is relalised by using cameras, microphones and sensors to monitor the animals day and night every second. This technology will not replace humans like the farmer, the veterinarian or other experts but delivers objective animal based measurements to the experts, the farmer first, to manage the process. Today over 1500 scientific papers have been published in the proceedings of the European Conferences of Precision Livestock Farming since 2003.
Precision Livestock® farming (PLF) is made possible by monitoring each individual animal or by objective measurements on the animals, by signal analyses algorithms and statistical analysis. 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 are forced to work with many more animals to make their living out of livestock farming and 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. Animal welfare, infection, aggression, weight, feed and water intake are variables that today can be monitored by PLF technology. 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 Livestock® farming is consistently collecting information of each animal. For this, there are several technologies: Unique ID, Electronic wearables to identify illness and other issues, Software, Machine Vision, etc.
Each animal requires a unique number (typically by means of an ear tag). This can be utilized through a visual ID, passive electronic ID tag or even an active electronic ID tag. 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
Electronic wearables such as an active smart ear tag can get data from individual animals such as temperature and activity patterns. This data can be utilized in identification of illness, heat stress, estrous, etc. This enables individualized care for the animals and methods to lower stress upon them. The end result is judicious use of drug treatments and nutrition to bolster healthy growth. This provides livestock producers with the tools to identify sick animals sooner and more accurately. This early detection leads to reduction in costs by lowering re-treatment rate and death loss, and getting animals back to peak performance faster.
Another 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:
- Induction/processing software applications (a necessity for use with electronic active ID tags)
- Automated Livestock Administration software
- Reproduction Optimization software
- Feed formulation software
- Quality management software
Precision Livestock® Management
Precision Livestock® management (PLM) is the continuous management of livestock using real-time automated processes to monitor animal reproduction, welfare, production, and environmental impacts. Benefits to using PLM include automating traditionally labor-intensive processes, providing in depth information that would otherwise be unattainable, using real-time automated processes to monitor reproduction, health and welfare, production, and environmental impact. There are tools available for all different livestock animals.
A robotic milker can be used for precision management of dairy cattle. The main advantages are time savings, greater production, a record of valuable information, and diversion of abnormal milk. There are many brands of robots available including Lely, DeLavel.
An automatic feeder is a tool used to automatically provide feed to cattle. It is composed of a robot (either on a rail system or self-propelled) that will feed the cattle at designated times. The robot mixes the feed ration and will deliver the correct amount.
Activity collars are like fitbits for cows. Several companies (SCR, Nedap, Connecterra) have a variant of a wearable device that helps farmers with estrous detection as well as other adverse health events or conditions.
Inline Milk Sensors
Inline milk sensors help farmers identify variation of components in the milk. Some sensors are relatively simple technologies that measure an indirect property electrical conductivity. Other devices use automated sampling and reagents to provide a different measure to inform management decisions. Some leading providers of inline milk component information are Delaval and their system called Herd Navigator, and Canadian start-up SomaDetect.
EID / RFID / Electronic Identification / Electronic Ear Tags
Radio Frequency ID (commonly known as RFID or EID) is applied in cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, deer and other types of livestock for individual identification. In more and more countries, RFID or EID is mandatory for certain species. For example, Australia has made EID compulsory for cattle. New Zealand for deer. The EU for sheep and goats. EID makes error-free identification of individual animals possible. This enhances traceability, but it also provides other benefits such as reproduction tracking (pedigree, progeny and productivity), automatic weighing and drafting.
Smart Ear Tags
Cattle hide their symptoms of illness from humans due to their predatory response. The result is that illness is detected late and not very accurately utilizing conventional methods. Smart cattle ear tags get behavioral and biometric data from cattle 24 hours a day/7 days a week allowing managers to see the exact animals that need more attention regarding their health. This is effective in identifying illness earlier and more accurately than visual observation allows. There are smart ear tag systems with different capabilities available including Quantified Ag, Cow Manager, Allflex.
There are many tools available to closely monitor animals in the swine industry. Size is an important factor in swine production.
Automated Weight Detection Cameras
Automated weight detection cameras can be used to calculate the pig's weight without a scale. These cameras make it faster and less stressful to record the weight of your pig. These cameras can have an accuracy of less than 1.5 kilograms.
Microphones to Detect Respiration Problems
In the swine industry, the presence of respiration problems must be closely monitored. There are multiple pathogens that can cause infection, however, enzootic pneumonia is one of the most common respiratory diseases in pigs caused by Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae and other bacteria. This is an airborne disease that can be easily spread due to the proximity of the pigs in the herd. A common symptom of this is chronic coughing. Early detection is important in using less antibiotics and minimizing economic loss due to appetite loss of pigs. A microphone can be used to detect the sound of coughing in the herd and raise an alert to the farmer.
Thermal stress is connected to reduced performance, illness, and mortality. Depending on geographical location, and the types of animals will require different heating or ventilation systems. Broilers, laying hens, and piglets like to be kept warm. Therefore, ‘Smart farming’ systems are being used to constantly receive data about the climate control in the livestock houses and the automatic feeding systems. The behaviour of animals can also be monitored, giving a farmer insight into their behaviour every moment of the day. 
In the poultry industry, unfavourable climate conditions increase the chances of behavioural, respiratory, and digestive disorders in the birds. Thermometers should be used to ensure proper temperatures, and animals should be closely monitored for signs of unsatisfactory climate.
Poultry Tools for Precision Livestock® Farming
There are limited number of software tools for the poultry industry. A well known software named AbuErdan  is used to monitor poultry flocks' performance, identify issues during cycles and integrate performance from multiple value chain stages.
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.
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