The dairy farm of the future

Science stories dairy
Agricultural data scientist Dr Jeremy Bryant is leading a team of researchers from AgResearch, DairyNZ, and Fonterra who are exploring what a dairy farm will look like in the future, how technology can improve animal and herd wellbeing, and how that same technology can be used to explain to consumers what’s happening down on the farm in a way that meets their expectations.

We read and hear a lot about how data and technology can transform agriculture. It’s a huge undertaking. Why have you chosen to focus on the animal wellbeing side of things?

One of the ways we can make a major contribution to the larger goal of transformation is to increase our understanding about how an animal is feeling in terms of its health but also importantly its wellbeing. Experienced farmers are good at detecting illness. But we can’t have a farmer monitor an animal in a paddock 24/7. Digital technologies can do a lot of that hard graft. They provide you with a record of what an animal has experienced through a day and that will ultimately provide insight into whether an animal, based on temperature or a reduction in activity, is not well or unhappy. Once you have this understanding, you can change how you intervene to improve their wellbeing. At present, animals can enter a subclinical disease state without any obvious way of detecting it. Sensors can help farmers be much more proactive, spotting early symptoms, stopping animals getting sick and improving animal wellbeing. They can take the guess work out of farming. There’s been an explosion in the market for animal health sensors in recent years. The market is confusing so one of our goals is to bring clarity and provide evidence of what is useful and what isn’t looking through a wider wellbeing, as opposed animal health, lens.

 
How will consumer expectations, which are often complex, influence your research?

Consumers expect high levels of animal wellbeing and care. They’re saying: ‘I want to know if this animal has been treated well, and you are looking after it’. Consumers are now expecting evidence of that. You can no longer just make a claim that this is the most well-cared-for animal in the world. Some will accept that it is. But others will say: ‘show me some evidence’. And because wellbeing is a very multi-faceted thing - you have hunger, freedom to express normal behaviours, animal health – you need to capture a tremendous breadth of information. You need ‘digital eyes’ to do all the hard work. That’s a big part of what this project is about. One of the goals of the Dairy Tomorrow strategy is, World Leading Animal Care. The partners want to help farmers deliver on that commitment. Fonterra, another one of our research partners, want to demonstrate to consumers that their products are the best you can get. That this is the premium stuff. Digital technologies and evidence-based science can play a big part in the telling of that story.

 
How will your research lead to world leading animal care?

We see that technology can play a big role here by understanding animal wellbeing, identifying areas for improvement, and conveying those states, changes, and attributes along the value chain from farmers to processors to consumers. For instance, one of the areas being investigated is optimised feed management via integration of sensors, machine learning, spatial analysis, and animal behaviour to avoid hunger or degradation of feed quality. Another focus area is heat stress. We can draw on temperature and humidity, wind, and wind speed data to help paint part of the picture. But we also need to research what heat stress discomfort looks like and understand when heat compromises wellbeing and production. We recently conducted a trial last year where we forecast thermoneutral days and then days when we thought the animal would be heat stressed. We measured respiration rate and rumen temperature and milk yield during these periods. We wanted to understand at what point cows become heat stressed and when mitigation is required. We know this kind of work is important for farmers.


What sort of hardware will you use?

Initially, we reviewed all the tech out there. In the animal wellbeing space, there are 90 different types that a farmer can buy right now. Most of them are health and reproduction related such providing data on whether an animal is sick or in heat. Very few provide broader data such how an animal is experiencing its life. We already have a good understanding on what farmers do to manage heat stress – using shade and putting cows under sprinklers to cool them off. We’ll also look at what sensors can help detect it. At the moment, it’s hard to know what a happy cow looks like compared to an indifferent one, so we will also look to define that.


We have been using rumen boluses which measure rumen temperature as an indicator of heat stress. We are looking at measuring activity with pedometers. Other sensors will measure rumination, if a cow is chewing its cud, is it eating or walking around the paddock between grazing looking for food. We have got inertia measurement sensors that tell us if a cow is moving its head, fighting with other cows. We’ll use videos and GPS tracking to detect interaction between animals, relationships, and that sort of stuff. 

Is the volume of technology a barrier to uptake?

Yes, definitely. With 90 different types of wellbeing sensor technology on the market and all at very different price points it is very hard for the farmer to say: ‘I need this one or that one or a combination’. The other thing is most of this technology has been developed for mixed ration, housed farming in Europe rather than pastoral grazing farming systems. We do not intend to develop the value proposition for every individual piece of technology. That should still be the realm of the company selling the technology. But we will look to identify existing technology that when used alone or together with other technology, can give a holistic picture of animal wellbeing. We will also identify gaps where technology doesn’t exist.


Who are you working with?

Mainly DairyNZ and Fonterra. NIWA have also been providing their virtual climate station data. We have been using that to relate it to milk records we have received from Fonterra to work out what is the heat load index for animals who become stressed. Hopefully that will mean we can look at climate change scenarios going forward. And what that means for how farmers can adapt management to minimise heat stress. We are working closely with farmers to make sure that we understand their needs and that our research outcomes are practical and able to be adopted.


We read and hear a lot about how data and technology can transform agriculture. It’s a huge undertaking. Why have you chosen to focus on the animal wellbeing side of things?

One of the ways we can make a major contribution to the larger goal of transformation is to increase our understanding about how an animal is feeling in terms of its health but also importantly its wellbeing. Experienced farmers are good at detecting illness. But we can’t have a farmer monitor an animal in a paddock 24/7. Digital technologies can do a lot of that hard graft. They provide you with a record of what an animal has experienced through a day and that will ultimately provide insight into whether an animal, based on temperature or a reduction in activity, is not well or unhappy. Once you have this understanding, you can change how you intervene to improve their wellbeing. At present, animals can enter a subclinical disease state without any obvious way of detecting it. Sensors can help farmers be much more proactive, spotting early symptoms, stopping animals getting sick and improving animal wellbeing. They can take the guess work out of farming. There’s been an explosion in the market for animal health sensors in recent years. The market is confusing so one of our goals is to bring clarity and provide evidence of what is useful and what isn’t looking through a wider wellbeing, as opposed animal health, lens.

 
What does the future hold for the programme?

We want at the end of another 2 years to say what is an animal-centric farm is going to look like in the future. What tech would you have on the farm so that the animal is well cared for, and that story is conveyed to the public and consumers. We want to provide a real-life example of animal-centric farms enabled by digital technology.


What is the early feedback like from farmers?

Good. We held workshops in the North and South Island recently and asked farmers to help us visualise and describe what a dairy farm will look like in 2070. The timeline was far enough in the future that all the current barriers they are experiencing were rendered moot. It helped them think about what the world will look like, and what technology and farming systems changes they might need. We also held a workshop which was less futuristic and looked at what technology could help now with detecting and mitigating heat stress. It went into detail and looked at whether an App or text alert system would work best.  It’s also great to have DairyNZ and Fonterra on board as they bring that applied and processor lens. For instance, we are working with Fonterra intensively on the heat stress, transparency aspects, and with DairyNZ on exploring whether we can use technology to reveal whether an animal is under or over allocated feed. We’ll be running some further experiments in that area.


Will your research have applications beyond New Zealand?

It will. Especially if we can support claims that animals are treated well here. I think grazing environments in Ireland and Australia and parts of the United States, where they have similar grazing systems, will be interested too. One of the real points of differences of this research is it is not being done for housed dairy herds. It is unique to our way of farming.

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