Precision agriculture comes to beef sector

Using technology to keep an electronic eye on the herd promises to pay production dividends for cattle producers

It turns out you can tell a lot about cows, if you watch them very, very closely.

“When they’re on heat, they position themselves differently,” said Jack Behan, chief executive officer of AlphaPhenomics. “So you can say there is a correlation between the positioning and the onset of estrus and ovulation; very important when you’re a livestock producer.”

But catching these small changes in a cow’s behaviour and physical state are often beyond the capabilities of even the most experienced cattle person.

AlphaPhenomics, a technology startup based in Edmonton, uses multispectral cameras and laser point cloud mapping to catch different data. The laser creates a detailed 3D image of the animal, infrared captures changes in body temperature, and microwave records very small movements of the tail or changes in body position.

“Put them all together and you have a very strong correlation, in real time, of the moment of ovulation,” Behan said.

The AlphaPhenomics system is also designed to measure other important metrics, such as optimum slaughter weight and feed conversion efficiency. Behan explained that a small-framed animal might be fed longer to get to a target weight, but put on too much fat in the process, while a larger-framed animal might be sent to slaughter before it reached its full potential.

Automating the weighing process makes production more efficient and also eliminates a tedious job.

Behan gave the example of a major pork producer in the United States, with a combined herd of about 200,000 sows. Using such a camera system, the operator was able to eliminate 21 person-years in time, a significant saving of a scarce resource that had been devoted exclusively to weighing animals.

“It’s just about value proposition, economies of scale, and making sure we can take people out of jobs that people really don’t want to do,” Behan said. “It’s becoming very difficult to find people to work in these intensive and extensive systems nowadays. So technology has to take that lead.”

AlphaPhenomics combines multispectral imaging such as infrared and visible light video with laser point clouds to allow producers to monitor livestock health and predict conditions such as ovulation, weight gain, body composition and illness. | Inatega photo

By tracking individual animals, in detail, producers can also identify which cattle are performing best. This can be laid alongside forage and ration information to design feeding programs, and even track back to which genetics deliver the best performance.

Behan said the system is also a valuable early warning system for disease, giving producers a heads-up to call in the veterinarian and treat problems early.

“With very good stock people they’re picking it up three or four days on average, they can feel there’s something wrong,” Behan said. “Cameras allow you a week to 10 days advance notice.”

He said continuous high-tech tracking of livestock is more familiar to dairy farmers, where electronic RFID tags and robotic milkers capture cow-by-cow production data and uploads them to computer systems. Data capture is made easy by several milkings a day, where cows come to the same places and those places can be equipped with sensors.

For beef production, AlphaPhenomics follows a similar strategy, positioning its cameras in places where the animals regularly congregate. This can be at feeding troughs, or for pastures, at watering stations. Individual animals can be tracked via RFID ear tags, or eventually, facial recognition via submillimetre laser imaging and machine learning. Research is underway with a partner company to fly the cameras on drones to collect data in the field.

While such technology has been successfully deployed in Europe, the company is currently working out two hurdles in this country: data management and weather.

Rural Canada is notorious for spotty internet connectivity and multispectral cameras generate enormous amounts of data. Camera systems that work fine in Europe tend to fail in the bitter cold of prairie winters.

To clear these hurdles, AlphaPhenomics turned to a partner in the petroleum industry, whose installations for monitoring people and equipment must transmit data from remote locations in all weather.

A multispectral camera is in position at a dairy farm. | AlphaPhenomics photo

Behan said there has already been interest from the beef industry, so much so that they had to shut down their website until May 1 since they didn’t yet have the cameras to serve producer requests.

Behan said AlphaPhenomics will operate on a subscription model, similar to a cellphone contract (a smartphone app is, in fact, how producers will use the service). Such a contract will allow producers to amortize the cost of the system while taking advantage of software upgrades. It will also recognize the value of data and encourage producer innovation.

“How do we get the farmer to share that data, and how does he benefit?” Behan said. “If he suddenly comes up with something that is really marketable, why not kick it back? If a guy has 25 of these cameras and he’s actually generating more money than it’s costing him, he should be getting paid.”

AlphaPhenomics is running proof of concept testing on several commercial ranches in Alberta through May and June. It also has a research collaboration running with the University of Saskatchewan’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence near Saskatoon. It plans to go live commercially at the beginning of July.

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