Manage to the average no more

Beef research and new technology take aim at individual animal management, but will it be profitable on the farm?

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The new beef research facility being constructed at the University of Guelph’s Elora Research Station will expand capacity to 288 cows and 96 replacement females and will enable researchers to gather more individual data on the animals.

Why it matters: Beef cow numbers have been declining in Ontario as other sectors, especially crops, provide more profitability. Better efficiency, from individual management, could help change that.

Katie Wood, an assistant professor in the department of Animal Biosciences at the university, told the FarmSmart conference that the university has expanded the number of researchers in anticipation of the greater research capacity in Elora. Part of the expansion was made possible by shutting down the university’s beef research program in New Liskeard. The expansion is funded by Beef Farmers of Ontario, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Agriculture and Agri-food Canada.

“One thing with the barn, we want to move to more precision management and measurement,” she said, including the capture of data on an individual animal basis.

Individual feed intake feeders are being installed at Elora, which will allow much more information on feed efficiency.

Much of the move to more individual measurement in bovines is being driven by inexpensive sensors that can track everything from rumen function, to activity, to body condition.

“If we can do things to increase the cattle’s response to the environment, then we will be better off,” says Robin White, Virginia Tech.
photo: John Greig

Robin White, an assistant professor of beef information systems management at Virginia Tech said that precision beef technology can be a way to get more value out of the elusive profitable periods in the beef sector.

“If we can do things to increase the cattle’s response to the environment, then we will be better off,” she said at FarmSmart.

Beef farmers usually manage to the average of their cattle, and she said that means the top end don’t reach their full potential and the bottom end of the cattle usually lag the rest.

Tight margins a challenge

White acknowledged the tight margins and big swings in profits in the beef sector, which is a challenge to a long-term commitment to using new technology on a beef farm.

However, she went through several areas where she sees potential for new technology to have an impact on beef farms. Many of the new technologies will be a fit for managing animals on pasture or on a range, an area that has been characterized by a lack of technology.

As a nutritionist, she said the goal in beef production has to be increasing feed efficiency.

“For me feed efficiency is everything,” she said.

There are lots of ways of improving feed efficiency and a lot of them can be measured, including reproductive success, reducing death loss, stocking density, calf output to cow size and forage losses.

One of her examples doesn’t involve monitoring animals at all, but instead finding new ways to manage forages.

The University of Nebraska is looking at soil conductivity and how it relates to crop yields. That could then be used to look at forage crop efficiency.

There are several potential uses of drone copters in beef farming, she said, and not just overall monitoring. An aerial view can help figure out which animals are doing well and which are not, which can help with individual cow management.

Researchers are working on identifying cows from drones. A drone can be set to fly a regular pattern at regular intervals, building a database of individual animal movement and condition.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) trackers have been around for years, but their use in beef farming is just being developed on the commercial side.

A GPS-tracked animal isn’t just an animal that you can tell when she’s outside of the fence. Sensors tied to the GPS tracker can look at the amount of time spent by water or minerals, and activity, which can be tied to disease events.

“You can prescreen animals that are prone to an issue,” she said. Lack of movement could mean lameness. GPS information can be tied to weather so that farmers know when a group of animals, or an individual, is inordinately affected by heat stress.

Another use is when an animal is on a road and moving a great speed, you’ll know when the animal has been stolen, she said.

The university will also be managing its animals more precisely on the expanded pasture capacity at Elora. It has bought a C-Lock Greenfeed trailer, which is a snack feeder for the cows that also records their methane and carbon dioxide emissions. White suggested that using such a feeder could lead to farmers being able to charge a premium for low-methane-producing cattle.

Body temperature monitoring is also an area of interest, as it also is a health indicator. Rumen monitoring boluses can also measure health, especially acidosis in finisher cattle.

There are many questions to ask and hurdles to overcome in the use of sensors in beef cattle, according to White.

The main one is profitability, and:

  • Can management be improved enough per animal to pay for the technology?
  • How much sensor drift can be tolerated for a reading it produces to still be valuable?
  • How far away are pastures? If a farmer has pasture leased around the province, then monitoring remotely would make more sense than if the cattle were on a home farm.
  • What’s the stocking density? It would make sense to monitor animals on large rangeland more than animals that are moved daily from pasture to pasture.
  • What are the drone regulations in your area? Regulations are tightening, and unattended, preset patterns are often not allowed. Weather and bird flight patterns can also be a challenge.

Even if all the precision sensors and monitoring equipment don’t make it to farms, they are providing greater data and options for those researching beef production.

About the author


John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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