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Precision livestock farming- Principles, Opportunities and Challenges

Introduction

With the exploding human population, livestock sector is burdened both directly (increased demand for animal products) and indirectly (lack of fodder/feed resources/climate change) to improve the efficiency of production and minimize environmental degradation. Among the various interventions being explored to increase the productivity of livestock sector, the precision livestock farming (PLF) tools are increasingly being evolved as the answer for some of the key demand supply gap. The PLF builds upon application of mainly the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to increase the efficiency of livestock production at the same time promoting better animal and human welfare. The PLF has bearings to revolutionize the livestock sector if main adoption issues are addressed.

Precision Livestock Farming (PLF)- Defined

It is still an arduous task to exactly define precision livestock farming, however, there exists a consensus that PLF refers to the application of technology to livestock management in such a way that animals could be constantly monitored in almost all aspects of production, reproduction and health, at the same time making livestock farming less human dependent. While some researchers suggest managing animals by ongoing, real-time monitoring of their health, welfare, reproduction, and influence on the environment, wherein “continuous monitoring” refers to logging and analysing of data every single second, at all hours of the day.

Other researchers, however consider PLF to be the use of technology by farmers to reduce their reliance on manual labour, assist them in (daily) management, and increase farm profitability.

Principles of Precision Livestock Farming (PLF)

The basic principle of PLF is simplification of data collection from animals and subsequent interpretation so that any identified problem could be solved in a time effective manner. With automation of animal monitoring, data is constantly logged for individual animals that allows for identification of behavioural changes, oestrus detection, early disease detection and disease forecast, among others. This allows the farmer/farm managers to precisely identify the issue and develop solutions accordingly. 

Areas of application

  • Animal Monitoring – Over the last decade a lot of development have been made in the area of animal monitoring. These include the application of basic technology like RFID tags for animal identification, to advanced health monitors that enable farmer to identify even slight behavioural modifications at the level of individual animals. The use of RFID tags/microchips help identifying the animals without the need of constant handling/restraining, allows continuous monitoring and tracking of animals even in an extensive production set up. GPS tags are also being used in animal production to aid in animal tracking, which is particularly beneficial when it comes to large herds that are maintained on pasture. It also helps track the walking behaviour. Use of collars embedded with behaviour monitoring sensors can aid in identification of oestrus occurrences through measurement of rumination rate as well as feeding and resting behaviour of individual animals. Sensors like pedometers, accelerometers, and posture monitors are also being increasingly used in animal production which have application in almost all aspects of animal management.
  • Animal Health and Welfare - Animal health has wide implications for the profitability and efficiency of livestock enterprises. With close association between animal and human health, the early forecast and efficient management of livestock diseases necessitates development of technologies that will aid in forewarning of effective states. In fact, this is of the key reasons for the development and further evolution of PLF technologies. As most diseases are easily treated on early detection, PLF technologies reduces losses incurred on account of diseases. Recent technologies make use of sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data analytics which help farmers address any health issues that become evident early on, in terms of altered behaviour, movement, feed and water intake and related deviations. With the constant data collection, and application of advanced analytics that allow prediction of deviations/aberrations, farmers are able to predict, identify and prevent possible outbreaks. These include application of thermal imaging to detect inflammation, lameness, and other irregularities. As thermal sensors allow continuous monitoring of temperature at almost all points of any animals, even slight day to day variations is easily detected and alerts the farmer of possible effective states, and has been found successful in detection of mastitis, lameness, hoof defects, among others. The other avenues include rumen sensors which are either telemetry-based pH monitoring system that helps track changes in rumen environment that can adversely impact feed digestion and lead to other health issues like ruminal acidosis/bloat etc, or temperature sensors that helps detecting alterations in rumen environment/heat stress or pressure sensors/motility sensors that helps in detection of bloat/aberrations in rumen motility etc and help disease forecast.
  • Animal Growth and Nutrition – One of the more lucrative aspects of PLF technologies and its application to animal production is the precise livestock feeding which helps cater to individual animal’s feeding requirement matching it with nutrient supply, on the basis of real-time sensors. Almost all animal feeding operations are based on group feeding standards, as individually feeding and monitoring feed intake and growth is a tall task. PLF provides the way forward with individual feeding approach, as automatic monitoring of individual animals can be easily achieved in terms of feeding behaviour, feed intake, water intake, rumination time, among others. Numerous sensors have been developed over the years that helps measure varied aspects of nutrition like energy balance, feed digestion, feed degradation and energy expenditure, the data from these can be combined in multiple ways to optimize animal feeding in terms of nutrient intake, and feed efficiency. The other approach is application of photogrammetry which allows monitoring of accurate feed intake, feeding behaviour and aids in measurement of individual’s feed efficiency. However, the feeding interventions using ICT is still at incipient stage and more confined to research studies, so, there is a need to develop and integrate animal models with new and evolving technologies that are customized to deliver right amount of feed/nutrient of right feed to the right animal at the right time. PLF can ensure need based nutrient dissemination, thus, reducing wastage of feed and fodder resources owing to excessive supply to animals. 

Advantages of Precision Livestock Farming 

The PLT technologies have the potential to revolutionize livestock sector in terms of efficiency, profitability and sustainability at the same time accounting for welfare of both animal and humans alike. PLT technologies can help in: 

  • Optimized inputs and enhanced efficiency of livestock sector: PLF technologies ensures precise handling and management of various aspects of production, which enables proper utilization of resources, reduced wastage and consequently the cost of production declines. This translates into higher profitability which makes adoption of PLF technologies more lucrative to the farmers.
  • Reduced labour requirement: With changing demographics, it is hard to find cost-efficient labour in primary sectors. PLF reduces the need for labour by encouraging greater automation and eliminating manual error in data collection, which helps in better decision making and efficient production.
  • Enhanced animal health and welfare: PLF enables early disease forecast and helps in early detection of various ailments by detecting even slight alterations from normal behaviour/parameters of individual animals. This has widespread ramifications for animal and human health, farm economics and animal welfare. Furthermore, sensors monitoring behaviour are very helpful indicators of animal comfort and ultimately helps enhance animal welfare.
  • Environmental implications: PLF technologies enable the monitoring of the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) production like methane emissions from animal production systems, which helps incorporate changes that can mitigate GHG emissions. Indirectly, the PLF technologies reduces environmental impact of livestock sector by ensuring resource optimization and reducing resource wastage. 

Disadvantages of precision livestock farming

  • Affordability of advanced technologies, automation enabling devices like milking robots, relay feeders, etc is a key bottleneck when it comes to adoption.
  • The technologies require a good share of customization when it comes to the varied nature of livestock enterprises in terms of species specificity/ specificity to physiological states.
  • PLF technologies are still viewed in context of mere monitoring operations, if the collected data is not interpretated to drive gainful solution that betters animal production and welfare, the investment of capital in such technologies becomes a fallacy.
  • The PLF technologies are hugely capital intensive and requires good infrastructural support.
  • Data handling and interpretation is highly time-consuming process and requires dedicated workforce to identify problems based on analytics, develop efficient solutions and address the problems. 

Challenges in adoption

With every new innovation, there is a fair amount of challenge associated with adoption. PLF is no different, it comes with its own share of challenges:

  • Difficult to adopt in extensive systems: The adoption of PLF specially in developing nations become a challenging task because of the largely extensive nature of production systems, these systems make real time monitoring using wireless tech difficult owing to the limited range of most sensors. On the other hand, the microchips used in animal identification, wearable collars do provide a very good solution in extensive production but affordability becomes an issue. The whole market of software providers and technology innovators are monopolized by few big enterprises, and lack of market is a major deterrent that prevents entry of other players, making these solutions costlier.
  • Lack of Standardization: Animals are considered as complex, individually different, time-varying, and dynamic (CITD) systems, which warrants a great amount of standardization if accurate results are to be derived. The whole spectrum of PLF technologies still lack standardization in terms of systems they are applied to, species they are adopted for, and physiological states of animals.
  • Lack of skilled manpower: The conventional workforce employed in the livestock sector is not skilled to handle most technologies/collected data, especially the interpretation of collected data.
  • High chances of equipment failure
  • Intrusive nature of technologies: Most of the devices used for monitoring various activities are often very intrusive, that sometimes defeats the purpose of animal welfare by interfering with animal’s normal state.

Opportunities 

The PLF technologies are still in their nascent phase when it comes to developing countries. These technologies are one of the key avenues that will transform how livestock keeping is done in the changing world, which puts significant pressure on livestock sector to feed an exploding world population at same time reducing environmental impacts. PLF will also generate new employment opportunities for a large workforce, from innovators to basic functionaries associated with livestock directly. However, to tap in the revolution, there is a lot of upgradations necessitated in terms of skilling and reskilling of labor force and evolve quality infrastructure that can address the needs of technology adaptation. With the rapid evolving nature of the sector, PLF can ensure food security while accounting for animal welfare. 

Content Contributors

  1. Gayatri Gujar - PhD, Livestock Production Management, CVAS, Bikaner
  2. Soumya Dash - Scientist, ICAR - National Institute of Biotic Stress Management, Raipur
  3. Nistha Yadav - PhD Scholar, Department of Animal Genetics & Breeding, CVAS, Bikaner 


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