Efficient farm operations with Electronic Tags

Can electronic livestock tags and recording make pastoral farming more efficient? In my previous articles we explored some ways that radio frequency identification tags and recording systems can be leveraged in extensive livestock farming systems:

  • Traceability and bio-security;
  • Farm assurance and food chain information; and
  • Benchmarking or running “trials” on farm to look at the effectiveness of feeds, genetics, and practices.

One would think that the largest benefits should come by leveraging electronic identification (EID) to deliver value in routine, day to day operations:

  • Monitoring weight gains;
  • Deciding which animals to preferentially feed;
  • Identifying sick animals or those needing attention;
  • Drafting animals for sale based on multiple criteria; and
  • Making culling decisions based on performance.

I believe that opportunities do exist in all these areas, however the challenge is in integrating the technology and the practices into farming systems so that they do not add substantial additional time, complexity or result in animals spending time away from production.

When I meet with farmers and researchers in Europe, I see all of the applications above being utilised, especially in intensive operations with pigs or dairy cows. The benefits in those operations are clear:

  • Weight monitoring and feeding tightens up the distribution of performance, removes the “long tail” of poor performers, and raises individual animal production;
  • Identifying sick animals reduces treatment costs and the spread of disease; and
  • Automated systems allow drafting of pigs for sale regularly as they reach the desired weight and grade.

Extensive livestock systems with sheep and beef are more of a challenge. Animals are not in a shed environment, so installing equipment is problematic. Beef+Lamb New Zealand Farmer Initiated Technology Transfer (FITT) projects have shown that one of the significant challenges in applying regular weighing and EID in extensive systems is disturbing animals in the fields and bringing them to central yards for handling. It often doesn’t get done because of the demands on farmers’ time and fear of reducing growth rates and spreading disease by concentrating animals together off pasture.

Rezare Systems and others in the industry have been exploring ways of automating this measurement with equipment in fields or gateways. It’s safe to say that this is still a work in progress. A confounding effect in extensive systems is that animals’ diet and drinking may vary greatly from day to day. This means that the variation in gut-fill can become a significant factor when weighing animals regularly, and can confound weight gain calculations.

I believe that in time we will see farmers using these techniques in extensive farming systems. New sensor technologies and machine-learning approaches may provide us with solutions to capture animal information regularly in the field and interpret it more effectively.

We will need to see a corresponding maturity in the systems currently used for decision making and animal handling. We recently built a tool used by customers of StockTrace in the UK, which provide advanced sorting or drafting of animals by a variety of criteria. I envisage future versions of these tools being used in concert with a farm planning tool such as Farmax:

  • The farmer monitors how their mobs of animals are progressing against targets they and their advisor have developed using models like Farmax;
  • In order to keep on track they look at the impact of various sorting and drafting decisions, with the software pulling information from individual animal monitoring into population models;
  • Decisions they make are passed back through the individual animal sorting system to automated equipment in the field, so that animals are sorted as they move between fields.

The individual technologies to do much of this exist today – the challenge will be in filling the gaps, integrating the technologies, and making it easy and sensible for farmers to use.