When people think of precision agriculture they tend to think of enhanced machinery, computers in planters and combines, and soil nutrient sensors.

“Precision ag got its start in the row crop sector analyzing soil types across a field and has really taken off in that sector for decades. The livestock sector is a bit behind and now playing catch-up,” says Dr. Katie VanValin, beef specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment Cooperative Extension Service. In a recent webinar, VanValin highlights the advances in beef precision ag that have the potential to help take the beef industry into the next phase of 21st Century production.

The term precision livestock farming, or PLF, was coined a decade ago and refers to real time, continuous, automated monitoring of production parameters using analysis of images, sounds and sensors that monitor health, reproduction, welfare and environment.

CC Cattle in Pasture

Environmental or animal health data can be collected and sent to the farmer’s cell phone via text. New apps help the farmer analyze and utilize the data.

“We can utilize technology for early detection of illness or lameness. We can spot environmental hazards or barriers to production. We can enhance existing practices and get an early start on making management decisions,” says VanValin. “Technology can be your eyes and ears while you are away.”

But, she warns, technology is intended to supplement good management, not replace it. “Think of it as top-tier management. It won’t make up for holes in management. A smart ear tag without a good nutrition program won’t help. You have to make sure you have your fundamentals covered.”

In short, PLF can fit into an operation and help enhance production without replacing years if experience.

A 2018 national survey of cow/calf producers showed they are ready for the new age. The survey asked how they see precision farming applied to challenges in the beef industry. Cow/calf health was first on the list, with 57.4% of respondents listing the issue as one of their top two concerns. Reproductive health was second at 48.9%. Other issues ranking high on the list were biosecurity and disease prevention, animal welfare and traceability/animal ID.

“There are technologies out there currently that will help us get there,” says VanValin.

Early illness detection and calving alerts

Detecting illness at an early stage can make the difference between an animal that reaches its potential and one that doesn’t. And feeding behavior can detect sick cattle. That’s where PLF can help.

A smart feed bunk monitors how often and for how long an animal visits the bunk, and how much they eat. In one study, the technology was able to identify sick cattle four days before trained pen riders.

Smart ear tags may prove to be one of the more useful PLF tools.

“Think of it as a smart watch or fit bit for cows,” says VanValin.

Smart tags track animal behavior and activity and send alerts to your smart phone. Apps like Cow Manager break down an animal’s activity from inactive to highly active and identify unusual changes and patterns that could signify sickness or lameness. It monitors time feeding, grazing and ruminating.

Smart ear tags can also measure an animal’s surface temperature to help detect disease. Independent studies have found the tags to be astoundingly accurate. There are also ankle monitors, used mostly in dairy operations.

Sensors can also be used to determine estrus, and vaginal sensors will even detect changes to the birth canal and send a text alert that the calf is on its way.

Be practical with new innovation

Smart ear tags can be pricey, $100-200 each. Many products come with a 5-year warranty.

“You may want to start with a few strategic animals rather than the whole herd,” says VanValin.

Proximity to existing infrastructure matters as well. In an open pasture, a solar-powered transformer may be required. Accompanying computer software is necessary, as is reliable, consistent broadband service.

The same applies to on-site cameras, still one of the simplest PLF devices, according to VanValin.

“One of the easiest PLF technologies is stationary cameras for monitoring cattle,” she says. “Even simple existing security systems can be adapted for farm or feedlot use and can be very cost effective.”

VanValin says when choosing a camera system keep image quality in mind. Resolution matters, as does capturing that image in low light.

Camera technology continues to evolve, and drones are being put to use monitoring cattle. Drones can not only provide a visual image, but thermo-imaging software can identify raised temperature in a sick animal.

Other camera systems are designed to estimate body weight through a series of measurements plugged into software originally created for video gaming, eliminating the stress of cattle handling.

There are also precision feeding and watering systems. An Australian product takes a photo of the bunk and measures how much feed is in it. A smart scale system weighs the animal as it steps up to the bunk.

Merck Animal Health’s Whisper stethoscope can score lung lesions chute-side to help in diagnosis and advancement of BRD in specific cattle.

PLF is also playing a valuable role in cattle identification and traceability.

VanValin says when adopting PLF, it is vitally important to do your research. New products are coming on the market all the time, some better than others. New technologies worth adopting will be verified by independent research.

“Read reviews. Make sure a product has sound research behind it,” says VanValin. “Start small and don’t dive in the deep end. PLF is not one size fits all. Identify what you want technology to help you with. Then weigh the value of production dollars returned and sleeping a little more soundly. It’s important to actually use the data to make management decisions.”