Sounds like DEFRA’s been listening

Back in March I posted an article on LinkedIn arguing the case for future farm support to be channelled into technology solutions that can deliver productivity gains and better deliver of social and environmental goods.
 
Well it seems the UK government is listening. Its publication of the Agriculture Bill last month which will determine farming support for a post-Brexit UK (noting that there will be differences in devolved administrations), caught my eye on three counts:
 
  • The phasing out of direct support payment
  • The introduction of funding for farmer-led R&D and collaboration on productivity innovation
  • A new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme
 
Of course the devil is in the detail, but on first glance (and at odds with some farming leaders) I like the look of what’s being proposed. Here’s why:
 
First, phasing out of direct support finally puts an end to the subsidy crutch that for too long has made British farming unproductive. We lag hopelessly behind many of our major competitors on this metric and while transitioning to a brave new world won’t be easy, it is vital to give farming the boot up the backside to become more innovative by necessity.
 
The fact that there may no longer be a requirement to farm to receive progressively reduced payments over seven years is a good thing. It gives farmers wishing to exit a dignified means of doing so, and might even start to make land occupation (rents or purchase) a little more reflective of economic viability – a good thing for innovating farmers and new entrants alike.
 
Second – and the one which in many ways I am most excited about – is the directing of funds towards farmer-led R&D and innovation. This is potentially game changing and totally in tune with a more technology-driven future for the sector. 
 
Back in March I noted the announcement of the Innovate UK Transforming Food Production fund of £90m as being a welcome start, but really just a drop in the ocean. I really hope the government through the Bill is bold enough to provide significant budget into this farmer-led area and not just pay it lip service.  There are some exciting initiatives we are involved in that fall squarely into what the government is driving at here. But this funding MUST encourage innovation that is focused on food production as well as other areas. As I wrote in the spring, more food is needed in the next 50 years than has been consumed in the entire history of humanity! It’s a big challenge that needs big thinking.
 
Third is the ELM scheme. For me there is also a huge technology role here. Delivery of public goods has to be measurable and we are now in the era of big (and small) data, machine learning and AI that could deliver real transformation in ways that can transparently demonstrate public value. The taxpayer should expect nothing less.
 
Moving away from direct support and into the territory of funding innovation and targeted activity is a sea change and something I believe to be a good thing. Ultimately, this approach is about the development of solutions which should, over time, stand on their own two feet. That’s what we are focused on and why so many of our clients come to us asking the question: “How will digital and data help us do the job better?” 
 
So, yes I understand why farm leaders are concerned. But this is not the time to cling onto the past. It is absolutely the time to tear up the rule book, imagine what the future should look like, and back truly innovative thinking and innovative farmers to get us there.  
Looking at sheep performance

Ways smarter tech can accelerate livestock genetic progress

I started writing about the case for smarter tech in cattle and sheep breeding programmes a while ago, and quickly realised there was more than would fit in a single blog post. In my previous post I described how technology can help us increase the pace of genetic progress, by:

  • Measuring what we can’t easily see, including a range of important traits such as efficiency, emissions and disease resistance; and
  • Reducing errors in recording and transcription.

There are two further areas where smart technology can and is helping:

Cut collection costs

How much does it cost to collect a phenotype for an animal?

A phenotype is the observable characteristics of an individual that result from both its genotype and the environment. When you collect sufficient phenotypic information about many individuals, you can adjust for environmental effects, and predict the genetic merit of that animals. Collecting phenotypes involves measuring details such as calving ease, weight gains, progeny survival and other characteristics of economic value to farmers and consumers.

Current technology for DNA analysis tell us more about the genetic similarity and differences between animals (their genetic relatedness) than their outright performance. There are relatively few simple gene interactions you can measure with a DNA test.

What DNA testing helps with is the challenge of recording which animals are related to each other, especially as pedigree recording gets harder with larger sets of animals. For the DNA test to be useful, it must be able to be statistically connected to animals that have had phenotypes measured.

As Dr Mike Coffey of SRUC, wrote in 2011, “In the age of the Genotype, Phenotype is king!

Phenotyping will continue to be required. Livestock breeders will need a pool of accurate and comprehensive phenotype observations to support both new and existing breeding objectives, connected to the growing pool of genotyped animals.

Measuring animals is time-consuming and expensive: the tedious task of observing and measuring characteristics of animals, linking these to the correct animal records, and transcribing the observations into computer systems.

With the need for ongoing, and potentially more detailed phenotype recording, technology is our friend. From automated weighing and electronic identification to cameras, sensors, and deep learning, properly configured and managed technologies reduce the cost of data collection – especially for larger operations and at commercial scale.

We’ve helped several organisations organise and automate their phenotype recording, integrating electronic identification and a range of other technologies, and streaming that data back to central databases.

Better buying behaviour

What really drives buying decisions?

Ultimately livestock breeding is driven by demand.  Livestock breeders focus their selection efforts on traits that drive economic performance such as:

  • Fertility;
  • Birth weight and survival;
  • Feed conversion efficiency and growth rates or milk production;
  • Carcass characteristics or milk characteristics;
  • Docility, resistance or resilience to disease;

and more.  In the livestock industry, this is presented as the predicted benefit to future generations (typically termed EPDs or EBVs depending on your species, breed, and country). The EBVs or EPDs are combined into economic indexes where each is given a $ or £ weighting based on its impact in a typical farm system and usually delivered as tabular reports and graphs to buyers.

And what do buyers select on?

  • In our experience, New Zealand dairy farmers make great use of the primary economic index – Breeding Worth or BW, combining that with decisions about breed and gestation length.
  • In the sheep industry, breed and breeder decisions are often the primary decider. Once a breeder is selected, the numbers are used to buy the best animals one can afford.
  • In the NZ and Australian beef industry, an expert tells me that for animals sold at auction, the closest purchase price correlation is with liveweight: in their opinion, animals are often valued on how big they are.

When sheep and beef farmers are presented with multiple EBVs and indexes, it can be overwhelming, and it is not surprising some farmers revert to assessing a ram visually, negating the value of genetics programmes.

I’m a great fan of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, where he points out the challenge we have with quantifying difficult or unknown measures.

“If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. I call the operation of answering one question in place of another substitution.”  – Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow.

If understanding EBV’s and indexes seems difficult, you’re most likely to substitute an easier question – how good the ram looks or how knowledgeable the breeder seems – without even realising you have done so.

How can technology help here? We can use technology to make ourselves smarter – or the questions simpler. For instance, there’s potential to create a data-driven system that analyses your current farm system and recommends which economic index or other measure you should use when choosing animals. Or perhaps a tool that with a few simple selections works out how much you should spend on rams or bulls, finds those at a sale that meet your needs, and returns a ranked short list that you can use in your final decisions.

Smarter technology for livestock buyers is a key area where the industry can make real progress on the rate of genetic gain, and a strong understanding of how people make decisions will be critical to its success.