Co-authored with Randy Schwalke
The world population, growing at 1.11% annually, is putting a lot of pressure on arable land. According to a report by the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), arable land per person shrank from 0.38 hectare in 1970 to 0.23 hectare in 2000, and that figure is projected to decline to 0.15 hectare by 2050. Meanwhile, the demand for agricultural products is on an upward trajectory. By 2020, animal products will account for about 50% of all food, up from 15% in the 1980s. Over time, the demand to feed farm animals will compete even more with putting food on dinner tables. This makes the case for the push toward precision agriculture and, in particular, to managing feed through precision livestock farming (PLF). The essence of this development is to manage and use resources, such as feed, in a more effi – cient manner. This is where internet of things (IoT) comes in. Geoff Mulgan, a technology expert and entrepreneur, has said, “As the IoT advances, the very notion of a clear dividing line between reality and virtual reality becomes blurred, sometimes in creative ways.” In the past, no one mentioned agriculture when discussion turned to IoT. This situation has changed today. The internet has reached the farm, and the farmer is now finding both creative ways and economic reasons to incorporate the “smart” virtual world.
What is IoT?
IoT is the internet with a machine-to machine communication component. Objects are embedded with computing devices to form a network that collects data through sensors and transmits the data for real-time analysis and consumption. A smart device can use the information it generates, pass it to other smart devices on the network and either trigger automated activities or make the information available to humans who use it to make critical decisions. Farmers embed smart devices and sensors on, in or around animals like cattle, pigs and sheep and collect critical data such as weight, rumen pH and nutrient levels. The data become useful in feeding decisions. This branch of IoT has acquired the name “internet of animal health things” (IoAHT). While it is in its early days, stakeholder interest is growing. In September 2015, researchers from the University of Cambridge in the U.K. published an article in which they identi- fi ed fi ve benefits of IoAHT. These include:
- Less biased data collection on farm animals. Even with the highest care possible, the end product of data collected manually by a farmer can carry strains of confi rmation, culture or selection biases. This can lead to faulty conclusions and even poor decisions. Sensors and smart devices, however, are more objective than humans. Devices are programmed with standardized methods for collecting and analyzing information, which provides accurate information about the state, condition and needs of each farm animal.
- Time and cost efficiency. With the automation of data collection, the farmer can take care of other aspects of animal care. The farmer also doesn’t have to hire more hands or spend hours analyzing data, which can take days, weeks or even months. According to the IoAHT report: “The benefit of sensor-driven devices is that the data capture can be automated; it lowers bias in data entry and enables the farmer to dedicate time to animal care while maximizing returns. In other words, data management is now both time- and cost-effi cient for the farmer.”
- Real-time data analysis and interpretation. If the information doesn’t provide help fast enough, it is as good as useless. This is even more true when it comes to feeding animals. A farmer needs to know whether and how to change a feed formula before it’s too late to achieve desired results. IoT makes this possible. Using sensors to monitor animal weight, as well as nutrient formations and deficiencies, the farmer receives real-time information and, thus, intervenes when it matters.
- Data accessibility in real time. Data collected by a farmer are useful to more people than just him. Others can use it to help the farmer improve his herd. For instance, animal feed manufacturers use the data to produce feed that meets the specific needs of the herd. Veterinarians can also use the data to offer appropriate advice regarding the nutritional requirements of the herd. The Cambridge IoAHT report noted: “For feed providers and nutritional companies, the use of weight estimation devices provides real-time tracking of animal growth with a predictive capacity. This allows manipulation of feeding regimes to reduce batch variation and meet the optimum criteria for meat production; farmers, therefore, receive better meat prices at the abattoir.”
- Tailored care for individual animals. Each animal is unique and has individual nutrient and feed quantity needs. Obtaining information about such differences can be difficult, especially in a huge herd. With smart devices and sensors, a farmer can acquire these data and use the information to take care of the particular needs of each animal.
The IoAHT report states: “Some sensor-device technologies now allow the ability to distinguish between individual animals within traditional herd-level batching. Individual differentiation of pigs allows closer observation of individual health indicators; for example, alterations in weight gain, feed and water intake and activity levels could be indicators of disease.”
Why IoAHT is critical
In animal production, feed is an essential resource and a major cost item. However, handling it at a herd level doesn’t help the farmer accurately monitor how this resource is used on the farm. The clear promise IoT holds for the agriculture sector is that farmers will spend less on feed while providing more optimal nutrient formulas to their animals.