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New tech measures cattle feed intake

The GrowSafe Beef System installation shows cattle can move freely to the feed bunks, which capture information on feed intake, their weight and how often they are eating.  |  Grow Safe photo

Feed consumption and weight gain are linked to healthier herds, so keeping an eye on feed intake can pay off

AIRDRIE, Alta. — When Camiel Huisma was helping a friend manage his ostrich chicks in 1990, the link between feed intake and animal health intrigued him.

The hatchlings were selling for $6,000 each, but the survival rate was less than 16 percent. As an engineer, he saw death loss as a problem that could be solved with logic.

The result was a rudimentary system to monitor feed intake.

Each bird wore radio frequency identification embedded in a leg band and their feeders were attached to scales to measure how much they weighed, as well as how often and how much they ate.

The system was not perfect because the birds did not like eating individually but Huisma discovered he could determine when they were getting sick before they showed symptoms because they were off their feed.

He and his friend lacked the computing power needed to collect and measure the data as well as they would have liked, but that early work turned into GrowSafe Systems, an advanced technology that measures feed and water intake, monitors animal behaviour and assesses ruminant forage intake on pasture.

The system is used in Canada, United States, Namibia, Australia, Brazil, Finland, United Kingdom and Uruguay. GrowSafe units can be found at research centres, universities, colleges, bull test stations and private livestock operations.

“We are an overnight success after 26 years,” said Huisma.

Working with his partner, Allison Sunstrum, company chief executive officer, at their facility west of Airdrie, Alta., they employ about 25 people including PhD level researchers, project development staff and animal scientists.

Studying feed intake and its relationship to heritable traits and animal health has evolved over time as technology caught up with Huisma’s ideas.

In 1993, the new company convinced Alberta Agriculture researchers John Basarab and Don Milligan to try the system because they were interested in early disease detection, as well as individual animal feed consumption and weight gain.

Feed bunks were outfitted with mats embedded with sensors to collect data. These were hard-wired into the bunks because wireless communication did not exist at the time.

Feed corroded anything they placed in the trough but they still gathered enough information to make a difference.

“We found the same things in ostriches as we did in beef cattle,” said Sunstrum, who joined the company in 1999.

The complexities of feed intake and how it related to animal behaviour were not well understood at the time. This system moved the research forward because it was capable of telling them what was going on with individual animals every day.

The systems were then installed at Agriculture Canada research centres in Alberta at Lacombe and Lethbridge. The feed bunks were suspended on load cells and they started to measure individual body weight as well.

The next significant relationship was formed with Olds College in Olds, Alta. The system was installed at the college feedlot but they knew something more practical was needed.

In 2002, they went to Cactus Feeders, the largest feedlot in the U.S. By then the system was wireless with antennae on the feed bunks.

The company agreed the data acquisition system was feasible and had value but said the technology was too expensive.

Producers were more interested in weight gain than feeding be-haviour, so they needed to develop a system that considered profitability factors in the feedlot.

“If our technology was going to work, we had to be able to measure things that brought different value to the feed yard,” said Sunstrum.

They soon realized they had the ideal tool to measure feed efficiency, a heritable trait that could save the industry big money in feed costs.

The concept of feed efficiency has been known for 50 years but in the last decade, more serious genomics work has been devoted to studying animals that carry that profitable and heritable trait.

Others were working on feed intake measurement systems, but at GrowSafe they wanted practicality and utility in commercial settings.

“There are other people who are measuring feed intake but we have that fundamental ability to measure that RFID ear tag continuously outdoors,” she said.

Under this system, each animal has a digital signature and is identified with an RFID ear tag. A GrowSafe RFID enabled feed trough is suspended on two load cells. Each second the animal steps up to the feed trough, the tag is scanned and feed disappearance is measured.

The system involves more than a sensor reading an electronic ear tag to record weight and feed consumption. Software has been developed to automatically analyze the data collected every day. It is also complex enough to filter out environmental issues like animals, birds or weather disrupting activity around the feed bunks or waterers.

The data is continuously re-corded and sent to a base station and a dedicated data acquisition computer located in the ranch or feedlot office. Data can be transmitted up to 100 kilometres.

The software interprets the data in a standardized way so each facility gets the same information to make decisions and provide insight.

By continuously monitoring individual animals and using big data analytics, farmers and ranchers can identify sick animals earlier. However, they do not have to pore over spreadsheets because the software does the analysis for them.

When a sick animal is targeted, the system identifies it with spray paint so the producer can pull it out and examine it.

“We can tell you with about 80 percent accuracy what each individual animal eats in the feedlot. That created a whole plethora of information,” Huisma said.

Measuring water consumption and forage intake on pasture is the next innovation.

They believed if they could measure intake and efficiency in a feedlot, they could do so for pastures. To help with the project, they signed a master research agreement with the Noble Foundation. The foundation supports applied research to benefit agriculture and this was its first foreign agreement.

With the foundation’s help, systems were developed and installed on eight small pastures to measure forage disappearance, soil data and weather. Results have not been released yet, but insights are emerging.

“We learned our feed efficiency measurements we were taking in the feedlot were holding true out on pasture,” Sunstrum said.

“We learned that animal response told us as much about that pasture as it did about the animal,” she said.

The company has two 28-acre pastures beside their site with sensors and keeps cattle in the paddocks for the research.

The next step is analysis.

“We found ways of providing data and providing insight that is building our new business. We are starting to focus more on the analytics than the actual equipment delivery,” said Sunstrum.

Much of the international genomics research assessing animals for traits like residual feed intake uses GrowSafe systems.

“We are automating the bridge between the phenotype and the genotype. We are determining the interaction with the environment and we are working with those researchers who want to collaborate onwards,” she said.

A partnership has been formed with Wheatsheaf Group Ltd. of Britain, which invests in businesses that offer solutions to resource constraints in food, energy and water.

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