Report: 'Precision farming' set to revolutionize livestock care

For centuries, livestock production has relied on conventional wisdom: farming practices, often passed down through family lore, that have dictated how the health and welfare of animals is managed. But the rise of the Internet, coupled with the increasing availability of big data, offers new tools to farmers that could make livestock production far more efficient in the future.

That's the theme of a new report from researchers at the University of Cambridge and Zoetis' ($ZTS) Centre for Digital Innovation in London called "Internet of Animal Health Things (IoAHT): Opportunities and Challenges." The authors argue that players in the animal health industry should work together to standardize and secure the emerging technology infrastructure, so farmers can embrace "precision farming" practices.

Among the new technology tools, for example, are sensors that allow farmers to keep track of individual animals and their health conditions, as well as providing real-time data that veterinarians can use to monitor livestock and track trends over time. Data from multiple livestock producers is also being used for early detection of emerging diseases and for supporting the responsible use of antibiotics.

If all of the world's livestock producers were to embrace such sensors, the impact could be revolutionary, according to the report. "Some sensor-device technologies now allow the ability to distinguish between individual animals, rather than traditional herd-level batching, which is common practice in the pig and poultry industries," it says. "This would allow farms to move away from the traditional 'top-down' business approach where drugs and feed additives are applied to the whole herd, to a more 'bottom-up' approach of targeted delivery of drugs to individual animals." That would not only be more ethical, it would be cost-effective, too, the authors say.

But there are many hurdles to overcome before the true promise of these innovations can be realized, they suggest. Some animal-data collection methods are unstructured, and the rise of these new technologies has sparked privacy concerns in the livestock industry. There are also unresolved questions about who owns the data and who has control over how it is used. The authors conclude that the animal health industry should proactively create a model to alleviate these concerns and promote the secure exchange of big data in livestock production.

The new report is the latest initiative by Zoetis to promote the adoption of new technology in animal health. In April, the company opened the Centre for Digital Innovation and stocked it with scientists who are working on apps and other tools to improve the health of both livestock and companion animals.

The center's flagship projects include an app that can detect and monitor lameness in cows, and a web tool for charting the growth of pigs. Zoetis launched the digital initiative with the goal of creating an electronic health record for every farm animal in the U.K.

If such technology were to be widely adopted, it could go a long way towards solving a major problem outlined in the new paper: The productivity of global agriculture must grow 1.75% a year in order to double its output by 2050 and satisfy the rapidly increasing demand for meat, the authors write. But the current global agriculture productivity rate falls just short of that target.

- access the paper here