Farming in Connectivity: Emerging tech helps farmers better manage their livestock

Published On
Oct 15, 2022

Livestock in today’s farms inhabit a low-tech world, with the sole electric power often being the bulbs that light the barns, stables and coops and some heaters or heating pads for newborn animals. But there is a transformation underway as farmers use security cameras, fire alarms, Wi-Fi routers and more to ensure safety and allow monitoring of animals in real time.

Every farm is unique, but the overall movement for barns, stables and fields is heading toward greater connectivity, which requires a power source and ability to link data back to a server.

On a Hygiene, Colo., farm, operated by Ian and Janine Russell, the cattle are housed in traditional barns, but the system used to manage them is much more modern. The husband-and-wife team are using a software solution they developed themselves that helps manage all the details of their cattle’s health and behavior. Ten years ago, they formed Farmbrite, a company that sells the software-based solution to mid-sized farms around the country.

The software enables owners to track health, weight, feeding, breeding and birth information about their livestock, as well as genealogy, grazing and financial details. Beyond the animals, the software can also track crops such as feed grown for livestock. Connectivity to supply the data that is used by the software is being applied in a variety of ways.

“Often, ranchers utilize weight scales, wands, mobile devices or tablets to add information manually while out in the field,” said Janine Russell, Farmbrite’s COO and co-founder.

Beyond those devices are drones, specialized tractors, IoT devices, radio frequency identification (RFID) wands and satellite monitoring, all of which benefit from low-voltage connectivity in barns and other confined areas.

“We have many different types of farms that use our solution,” Russell said. The technology serves farms that have cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, goats, horses, llamas, alpacas and even fish and bees, to name a few.

“We’ve even had customers who produced insects like meal worms, and red deer,” she said. Their needs vary as widely as the livestock being managed. “If you have two farmers that are raising the same animal in the same kind of farms, they’re going to do it differently.”

However, there are commonalities. In recent years, Russell said, “I find that the livestock producers are more concerned with connectivity—can they access their data out in the field? And can they quickly take in livestock measurement and yield data?”

There are a lot of choices when it comes to how data is collected.

“I think the needs of the farm or ranch really depend on the size of the operation,” Russel said. If the farm or ranch is leveraging IoT, drones or satellites, for instance, they have the need for a more complex farm management system.

There are other technological considerations that are rarely used today, but may be more commonplace in the future. Farmers organizing complicated shipping or using artificial insemination might want a more robust enterprise resource planning system, she said, than the standard farm management software of the past.

“Mostly, we find our livestock producers want all their data in one place and connectivity and access to their data while they are out in the field,” Russell said.

That connectivity might simply mean installing an additional router in a barn so they get better coverage, or more.

“Whether they are growing hay or raising cattle, pigs [or] chickens, we provide a place to keep track of it all in one easy-to-use place,” Russell said.

Going forward, every farm will keep records in their own way. Some will want to keep paper records, because that works for them, but others will look for smarter ways to solve their key problems.

Technology needs to be versatile and easy to use. A drone that only flies for a half-hour due to battery constraints won’t be able to provide the data needed, and may be outdated in a few months.

“No one wants to invest in things that don’t last,” she said.

In the meantime, the nature of farming has shifted and will continue to do so based on changes in economics and the climate.

“One pressure I see is water shortages being a big issue for farmers and ranchers in the coming years,” Russell said. Hay cutting has been less frequent recently, making feed more expensive. If grazing is not available, then that will drive some farmers to sell their livestock, according to Russell, which will then drive up prices to consumers because there will be less available meat or other animal product.

In today’s connected world, some farmers are looking to commonplace technologies to ensure their livestock’s safety when humans are not on-site. Security systems, fire alarms and cameras identify when animals may be at risk and are helping protect high-value livestock, especially horses.

For instance, security cameras trained on entrances or inside stables can capture events that might pose a risk to the animals. That can mean anything from people going in and out of the stable, thus identifying specific people or potential thieves, to weather and other environmental concerns.

Other technology on the horizon may require connectivity if deployed at scale. For instance, a California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo, research project found that an RFID-enabled unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, can read tags attached to cattle as they graze wide fields or pastures.

UAVs in the ag sector

Already, UAVs are being used more frequently in the agriculture sector as drone size, functionality and connectivity continue to improve. For instance, many flyover crops use camera-based intelligence to identify the condition of vegetables or grain being grown. Ultimately, they are intended to reduce labor costs and increases in efficiency, accuracy and traceability within farm operations.

In 2021, researchers at Cal Poly’s Center for Global Automatic Identification Technologies studied the potential of such drones for livestock management and explored animal behavioral constraints and the feasibility of large-scale UAV technologies. The project was led by then-thesis candidate Sabrina Olson, an industrial engineering student who is now a faculty lecturer.

The research focused on rangeland cattle management. Handheld wands don’t provide regular data in wider range areas, while a drone could sweep over a field where individual animals are grazing, tracking movement trends, water access and grazing patterns, Olson said.

Drones could be used in large rangelands and pastures where cattle don’t regularly return to a controlled area to be counted. They can identify if an animal is injured, stranded or lost while also tracking an entire herd’s movement patterns.

However, today’s UAVs have battery life constraints, even when the launch area has outlets for recharging. Battery power for the drones typically lasts for only 30–45 minutes of flight time before recharging is necessary. That is one of the biggest technological challenges still ahead for the use of multirotor drones, Olson said.

Connectivity for the drone data relies heavily on cellular connections or adding a Wi-Fi hotspot. In areas where cellular coverage is patchy, users would most likely have to write code to direct the drone to fly in a straight line through any noncoverage area to get to the next cell service. Therefore, improved connectivity is likely to be a driver for drone management of cattle. That said, the technology shows immense promise, the researchers found.

“I think that from both an efficiency standpoint and a safety standpoint, technologies like drones and other sorts of remote monitoring tools will basically make things a lot easier and safer” for cattle producers, Olson said.

Livestock challenges include the smaller animals such as free-range chickens. Perdue Farms, Salisbury, Md., has experimented with tracking the movement of hens, which are free to roam in and out of the hen house. The system consists of a wired antenna around a hatch and ID devices on chickens that pass through the hatches to identify how often the birds take advantage of free-ranging.

With the data, said Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue Farms’ senior vice president of technical services and innovation, the system enables farms to confirm that chickens actually are roaming outside, while managing the trends to understand how they can better lure them outside, such as planting specific herbs that appeal to chickens.

Such livestock experimentation will be continuing to find applications in the coming years, all requiring the commonality of power and connectivity.

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