New technology to change feedlots

Technology is already hard at work in the Canadian cattle feeding industry but there is potential for far more, says a global leader in feedlot management.

Dr. Kee Jim, founder of Feedlot Health Management Services, said technology can lead the way to improved sick animal detection, enhanced use of ultrasound and better practical management aspects like self-driving feed trucks and “bunk bots” that gauge feed remaining in feed bunks.

“I believe that in the very near future, with all of the technological developments that are occurring, things will change here very quickly,” Jim told those on an Oct. 7 webinar organized by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

Jim said sick animal detection in feedlots has changed little in his 37 years with the industry. Pen riders identify sick animals by observation and pull them from the pen for temperature checks and potential treatment.

“I think that very quickly here with the miniaturized sensors that can be worn by cattle to collect data points when the animal is in the pen … we are going to be able to collect data that we’ve not been able to in the past,” he said.

“And with these enormous data sets and data mining, I’m pretty convinced that algorithms will be developed basis the behaviour and movement of animals in pens, that will allow for much earlier disease detection than possible by humans and pen checkers.”

Animal welfare will be improved as a result, said Jim.

He also anticipates improvements in chute-side diagnostics that will allow detailed assessments of blood samples to determine diagnosis of illnesses and prognosis in an animal’s health. Treatment would then be more easily determined and is likely to reduce antibiotic use, which is desired given the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria.

As for use of ultrasound, Jim said it hasn’t been very useful in feedlot settings to date but technological improvements could change that.

Self-driving feed trucks, bunk bots and more extensive use of drones in feedlot settings are also likely, he added.

Enhanced genetic testing will allow more accurate predictions of animal performance and carcass attributes. Optimum rations can be formulated based on that data. Three-dimensional imaging can also play a role.

“I think we are on the cusp of major technological change in feedlot production, unlike anything that we’ve seen over the last four decades. The cost of these technologies, the …. computing power that’s available, the availability of pretty low-cost micro-sensors and the wherewithal to integrate all of these technologies together, I think, will make the next five years or so in feedlot production pretty interesting.”

Feedlot Health Management, based in Okotoks, Alta., has feedlot clients in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Kazakhstan and China. Jim estimates the company works with 40 to 50 percent of the feedlots in Alberta.

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