Revolutionizing Livestock Farming: How Automation is Reshaping the Industry

Feb 24th 2023

Revolutionizing Livestock Farming: How Automation is Reshaping the Industry

Livestock farming is a crucial industry that provides food, jobs, and economic benefits to people worldwide. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock production contributes to around 40% of the global agricultural gross domestic product (GDP). As of 2020, the global meat production reached 335.4 million tons, contributing USD 1,329.1 million to the global economy. With the advancements in digital technology and implementation of automation, the global livestock farming is estimated to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 10.7% to reach USD 2,445.9 Million by the year 2028. 

Today, the agri-food system and the livestock sector are facing significant challenges as a result of global changes. Firstly, the increasing population, estimated to reach 9.5 billion by 2050 (UN statistics), is an added pressure to produce more food. This should be achieved despite the worsening conditions of climate change, biodiversity collapse, and reduced availability of resources like soil, fresh water, and other minerals. 

Secondly, the agriculture sector must swiftly adopt new livestock production systems that respect animal welfare and minimize environmental harm. This should also involve reducing input usage, such as antimicrobials, fertilizers, and pesticides, and making judicious use of natural resources like water, reducing soil compaction, greenhouse gas emissions, and applying biological regulations. The goal for countries and industrial players is to arrive at a multi-objective optimized solution involving the parameters of Animal welfare, Climate impact, and sustainable food production.

Automation is looked at as a solution to the complex issues in livestock farming. The use of technologies such as automated feeding systems, robotic milking systems, and drones for animal monitoring is becoming increasingly prevalent. In this article, we will explore the current scenario of livestock farming, impact of automation and digital technologies, the challenges it faces, business case studies of automation in livestock farming, and the future scope of this industry.

Livestock farming - Current Scenario and Challenges:

Traditionally, livestock farming involves raising animals such as cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry for meat, milk, eggs, and other products. Farmers typically keep their animals in barns or outdoor pastures, where they are fed and cared for by hand. The animals are generally monitored by visual inspection, and their health is assessed by a veterinarian as needed. They also should estimate the environmental impact of their operations, and comply with local, state, and federal regulations related to animal welfare, food safety, and environmental protection. 

Therefore, before jumping on to how Automation can help the livestock industry and the farmers, let us quickly discuss the critical issues faced by the livestock industry, and what is the need for Automation?

Challenges in the Livestock Industry - The Need for Automation:

The use of automation in livestock farming is necessary to address certain practical, on-field challenges faced by the industry, such as:

  1. Labor hardships, shortages and efficiency: Farmers are responsible for all aspects of the business, including feeding, watering, and caring for the animals, as well as marketing and selling the products they produce. This often involves long hours of manual labor and can be physically demanding. Also, the shortage of skilled labor is a significant challenge for the industry, particularly in countries such as the US, where labor costs are high.
  2. Animal welfare concerns: Monitoring and caring for large herds or flocks of animals can be challenging, particularly when they are spread across a vast area.
  3. Disease control: Disease outbreaks can have a devastating impact on livestock farming. Early detection of diseases is crucial to prevent their spread and minimize their impact.
  4. Cost of production: The cost of producing and sustaining a livestock farm can be high, including expenses for feed, labor, and equipment.
  5. Environmental impact: The livestock industry can have a significant impact on the environment, including water pollution, soil compaction, and greenhouse gas emissions.

With such challenges expected to increase in severity to meet the global food consumption demands, farmers must strive to ensure a balanced investment of time and resources, and find simpler solutions for animal care, business management, and environmental stewardship. Therefore, the need for Digital technologies, and Automation in Livestock farming is paramount, primarily to lessen the farmers burden and to improve the economics.

Automation in Livestock farming - Types:

Automation in livestock can be deployed at various stages starting from breeding, feeding, grazing, housing, health management, reproduction, milking, cleaning and sanitation, slaughtering and processing. One or more of the following strategies can be implemented depending on the farmers' needs or to address a specific need:

  • Genetic testing and analysis: This involves using genetic testing and analysis to identify desirable traits and select animals with those traits for breeding. This technology helps farmers produce offspring with better genetics, increasing productivity and profitability. Examples include breeding for livestock with higher mature weights or those less vulnerable to certain health issues.
  • Precision livestock monitoring and control: This is a system that involves using Geospatial or motion sensors, integrated with IoT Gateways, and data analytics to monitor animal behavior, grazing patterns, health, and reproduction. This technology allows farmers to make data-driven decisions about the healthy distance of grazing per day, weight of the livestock according to its age to determine if it is underweight or overweight, temperature variations indicating diseases, and to monitor reproduction cycles.
  • Reproductive technologies: This includes the use of artificial insemination, embryo transfer, and other reproductive technologies to improve breeding outcomes. These technologies can increase the success rate of breeding and help farmers produce more high-quality offspring.
  • Automated feeding systems: These systems use sensors, solenoid valves, and other programmed IoT controllers to precisely control a defined amount and timing of feed to individual animals (or for categorized groups of livestock) based on their nutritional needs. This can help improve growth rates and reduce feed waste, leading to more efficient breeding and genetic outcomes.
  • Robotic milking systems: These systems use robotic technology to milk dairy animals, reducing labor costs and increasing milking efficiency. The data collected by the systems can also be used for breeding and genetics decisions.
  • Data analytics and Industry 4.0 technologies: This refers to the integration of automation, data analytics, and IoT across the entire livestock farming process. Industry 4.0 technologies can improve health monitoring, identification of diseases, monitoring drinking behaviors, posture analysis, vocalizations, weighing systems, breeding and genetics outcomes by providing farmers with real-time data and insights to inform decision-making.
  • Automatic egg collection systems: These use conveyor belts and robotics to collect eggs from chicken coops, reducing labor costs and increasing efficiency.
  • Climate control systems: These use sensors and automation to regulate temperature, humidity, and ventilation in animal housing, providing a more comfortable environment for livestock and improving productivity.
  • Automated or Robotic cleaning systems: These use robotics and high-pressure water jet and drain systems to clean animal housing, reducing labor costs and improving sanitation. With defined time controls and solenoid valves, water or cleaning fluids can be used to clean the shelters.
  • Robotic slaughter systems: These use robotics and automation to perform humane slaughter of livestock, improving efficiency and reducing labor costs.
  • Automated vaccination systems: These use robotics and sensors to administer vaccines to livestock, reducing labor costs and improving vaccination accuracy.
  • Identifying live embryos in eggs, and identifying non-hatchable eggs: To optimize hatchery space usage and improve productivity, farmers can use near-infrared hyperspectral imaging and machine learning to identify non-hatchable and infertile eggs. ML algorithms trained with image datasets classify eggs as fertile or infertile, allowing farmers to remove the latter early on.

Selection Criteria of Automated Systems for Agriculture:

Most middle and small scale livestock farmers assume that automation is difficult and a complex process, requiring huge initial investments. But contrary to this belief, automation can be selected, as per the requirements and the problem to be solved. Though integrated smart farm solutions are available, often these may not be the optimal solution for small or medium scale farms. Imagine implementing an automated slaughter system for a farm of 15 cows and 10 pigs! Therefore, there can never be an ‘one size fits all’ automated solution. Therefore while selecting an appropriate solution, the following parameters need to be considered: 

  • Objective / problem statement: Specific livestock needs, pain-area of farmer, or the farm
  • Compatibility: Type of livestock, existing farm infrastructure and equipment
  • Size and capacity: Quantity of livestock end products and number of livestock to monitor
  • IoT, RFID Sensors and Data analysis: Number of sensors required. Often motion, temperature, and proximity are used to track and monitor livestock movement
  • Software and hardware capabilities: Server capacity, data or parameters to be monitored in real-time (periodic and occasional), integrations with alarm and visual notifications
  • IP rating and certifications: Ruggedness, certifications, based on use case, climate and topographic conditions
  • Cost: Automated systems can be expensive to purchase and maintain, so it's important to consider the upfront and ongoing costs of the system.
  • Ease of use: Complex automated systems may require dedicated manpower to operate and maintain. Selection of easy to use interfaces can be considered.

After identifying the extent of automation required in a farm, the following section describes the components used in Smart / automated Livestock farming. 

Components of a Smart Livestock Farm or Automated System:

Though, as explained above the components can vary depending on the specific needs and goals of the farm, any automated livestock system consists of four component framework - physical structure (hardware), data acquisition, data processing, & analytics (software), embedded system, and control systems (i.e. solenoid valves), as explained below:

  1. Hardware: Selection and installation of hardware components such as motorized ball valves, robots, drones, conveyor belts, gateways, image processing lenses, and system integration, calibration, testing, and maintenance lie under the hardware category.
  2. Software: ML (machine learning), cloud storage, AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms, application development for remote monitoring, SMS, and E-mail alert configurations.
  3. Embedded Systems: RFID devices, Micro-controllers, sensors, communication protocols, and PLC firmware.
  4. Control systems: closed loop, open loop system, plant specification, and decision loops

As depicted above, every one of these systems generally has a set of smaller components that interact together. A programmed system links the constituents harmoniously to initiate an automated stage or tackle a farm problem...

Automation Components used in Livestock Automation or Smart Farms:

The most common automation technologies used in livestock farms:

  1. Sensors (RFID, Motion, Geo spatial, Thermal and motion): Sensors can be used to collect data on various aspects of animal health and behavior, including temperature, humidity, air quality, water quality, and feed consumption.
  2. Automated feeding systems: Automated feeding systems can deliver feed to animals based on their individual needs, reducing waste and improving productivity.
  3. Environmental / weather control systems: Environmental control systems can regulate temperature, humidity, and ventilation in animal housing, creating optimal conditions for animal health and productivity.
  4. Data management systems: Data management systems can collect and analyze data from sensors and other sources, providing insights into animal health, behavior, and production.
  5. Robotic milking and shearing systems: Robotic milking and shearing systems can automatically milk and shear animals, reducing labor costs and improving efficiency.
  6. Automated cleaning systems: Automated cleaning systems can clean animal housing and equipment, reducing the risk of disease and improving animal health.
  7. Electronic identification systems: Electronic identification systems can track individual animals, allowing farmers to monitor their health and productivity.
  8. Remote monitoring and control: Remote monitoring and control systems allow farmers to monitor and control farm operations from a distance, improving efficiency and reducing labor costs.
  9. Artificial intelligence and machine learning: Artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies can analyze data from sensors and other sources, providing insights into animal health, behavior, and production and allowing farmers to make data-driven decisions.
  10. Energy management systems: Energy management systems can optimize energy use on the farm, reducing costs and environmental impact.
  11. Robotic Actuators: These devices execute the decisions made by the control system, such as adjusting the temperature or humidity levels, opening and closing gates, and administering feed or medication. 
  12. Livestock / precision Monitoring Systems: Automated systems that track the health and location of livestock using sensors, GPS, and EID (electronic identification). These systems help farmers manage their herds more effectively, reducing labor costs and animal stress.
  13. Robotic slaughtering and processing systems: Robotic arms and conveyors are to perform the tasks of slaughtering, cutting, and packaging of meat products in a livestock farm.

Successful Case studies of Automation in Livestock farming:

Case study 1: Libelium Plug & Sense Technology to reduce Methane emissions

The case study by Libelium focuses on a cattle farm in Spain that used IoT, business intelligence, and blockchain technology to reduce methane emissions from livestock. The farm installed sensors in the animal feed to monitor the animals' digestion and detect any anomalies. These sensors were connected to a gateway that sent the data to the cloud, where it was analyzed using business intelligence tools to generate actionable insights. Based on the insights, the farmers adjusted the feed formula to reduce methane emissions from the animals.

Case Study 2: Automated Livestock Barn Ventilation Solution

In this case study, IMO Automation worked with a livestock farm in the US to optimize their barn ventilation system using automation technology. The farm had been facing several issues due to inadequate ventilation, including higher energy bills and reduced productivity. IMO Automation installed sensors to measure the temperature, humidity, and ammonia levels in the barn, and connected them to a control system that could adjust the ventilation system automatically.

Advantages of Automation in Livestock farming:

The advantages of automation in livestock farming are numerous and can be summarized as follows:

  1. Increased productivity: Automation can help to increase productivity by improving the efficiency of livestock farming operations. For example, automated feeding systems can help to ensure that livestock receive the right amount of feed at the right time, which can lead to better growth rates and higher yields.
  2. Improved animal welfare: Automation can help to improve animal welfare by providing more consistent care and reducing stress on the animals. For example, automated systems can monitor the temperature and humidity in barns to ensure that animals are kept in optimal conditions.
  3. Reduced labor costs: Automation can help to reduce labor costs by automating repetitive tasks such as feeding, cleaning, and milking. This can free up labor for more skilled tasks and reduce the need for manual labor.
  4. Data driven decision making: Automation can help to collect more accurate and comprehensive data on livestock farming operations, which can be used to make better decisions and optimize production processes.
  5. Increased food safety: Automation can help to increase food safety by reducing the risk of contamination and improving traceability. For example, automated systems can help to ensure that animals are handled in a safe and sanitary manner during slaughtering and processing.
  6. Optimal utilization of resources and Environmental sustainability: Automation can help to improve the efficiency of livestock farming operations by reducing waste, optimizing resource use, and minimizing downtime. This can lead to cost savings and increased profitability. This can enhance environmental sustainability by reducing waste, minimizing the use of resources such as water and energy, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  7. Enhanced biosecurity: Automation can help to enhance biosecurity by reducing the risk of disease transmission between animals and between farms. For example, automated systems can monitor and control access to barns and other facilities, and can help to detect and isolate sick animals.
  8. Social benefits: Automation can help farmers improve their working conditions and increase their social and economic opportunities.

Challenges while Implementing IoT & Automation solutions in Agriculture:

Although automation provides several long-term benefits, farmers must overcome particular operation challenges to implement IoT and automation in agriculture, such as:

  1. High Initial Investment: The initial cost of setting up the IoT and automation systems can be high for a short ROI, which may be a challenge for farmers with limited financial resources.
  2. Technical Expertise: Implementing and operating IoT and automation solutions require technical knowledge and expertise, which may not be available to all farmers.
  3. Dependence on technology: Over-reliance on technology can be a risk, as system failures can lead to significant losses in productivity and revenue.
  4. Maintenance and Repair: IoT devices and automation systems require regular maintenance and repair to ensure optimal performance, which can be a challenge for farmers who may not have the necessary skills or resources.
  5. Ease of operation and dependence on technology: Over-reliance on technology can be a risk, as system failures can lead to significant losses in productivity and revenue.

Summary and the Future of Automation in Agriculture:

Agricultural Outlook projects the global meat supply to expand over the projection period, reaching 374 Million tons by 2030. And as explained in the introduction the world population continues to grow and the demand for food increases, therefore livestock farmers have to adopt automation and digital technologies such as robotics, sensors, and artificial intelligence to manage their operations, to optimally use the resources, and contribute for ecological sustenance. Automation technologies can be implemented across various stages of livestock farming, from breeding and genetics to feeding, cleaning, and slaughtering. By using these technologies, farmers can improve productivity, reduce labor costs, and enhance animal welfare.

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