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How technology can help livestock farming

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By Josh Loeb

Animal welfare could be improved by letting computers take over much of the day-to-day running of farms.

That is the view of Dieter Schillinger, deputy director general of the International Livestock Research Institute.

In an interview with Vet Record, he said ‘precision’ farming of livestock – involving the use of internet-connected sensors, facial recognition cameras and smart microphones – would enable farmers to remotely monitor herds and halt disease spread earlier.

He conceded the concept would likely prove controversial among some animal welfare advocates because of a perception that the technology would merely serve to further embed existing intensive farming practices.

Technology is in fact much better than humans

He told Vet Record: ‘Politicians in the European Parliament believe a human being, a farmer, is the best controller of animal health and animal disease. They believe technology can never be as good at this as humans. There is a communication challenge in making it clear that technology is in fact much better than humans.’

He compared resistance to the idea of using artificial intelligence and robotics in farming to historical antipathy towards vaccines.

‘The concept of precision farming has been used – or misused, I would say – by people who don’t like intensive farming,’ he said. ‘It’s like the challenge we had in the animal health industry when we first talked about vaccinations. People said “if you have small farms with 10 or 15 cows, why do you need a vaccine? Vaccines are just enablers of intensive or industrial farming” Precision farming technology is seen in exactly the same terms – as an enabler of industrial farming.’

Examples of new digital tools for animal health include lameness detection software produced by UK company IceRobotics and a pig respiratory disease mapping system marketed by Belgian company SoundTalks.

The latter runs on algorithms honed by Tomas Norton, a ‘health engineer’ from university KU Leuven. It uses cameras designed to recognise and monitor, in real time, individual pigs and to record how much time they spend drinking, as well as to track growth rates. Microphones placed throughout barns detect pigs’ coughs, with the resultant data being fed into computers so it can be analysed and the evolution of suspected respiratory diseases can be precisely mapped.

Norton said the technology could enable vets to work more closely with farmers. The cough monitoring system could help them reduce antibiotic use and improve welfare by monitoring signs of aggressive interactions, such as tail biting, ear biting and flank biting.

Sarah Wolfensohn, professor of animal welfare at the University of Surrey, said data harvested in such ways could inform animal welfare assessments.

Wolfensohn told Vet Record: ‘With tail biting activity monitoring for pigs, for example, that data could feed into a computer and … could trigger an alert. This might tell a person to put in enrichment.’

She said big data could help identify factors that exacerbate the likelihood of aggression, for example.

Drones have already been used by some hill farmers to monitor sheep on hillsides, and the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford has helped develop smartphone software intended to allow farmers to manage flocks of intensively farmed chickens remotely with higher degrees of welfare.

However, Wolfensohn said farmers were not always willing to make the investment required for such steps.

She said: ‘There’s an awful lot you can do to improve animal welfare, but it will mean spending money.’

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