On-farm tech must make sense (and cents)

By David Speller

Editor’s note: David Speller is a poultry farmer and CEO, OPTIfarm, based in the U.K. He presented as part of the ‘Technology’ breakout session during the 2023 Banff Pork Seminar. He can be contacted at david.speller@optifarm.co.uk.

According to Speller, ‘Technologies don’t always start from problem-first principles.’ When the solution comes before the problem itself, it may be time to take a step back and re-consider.

Digital farming, technology and data insights have all become popular subjects for many animal agriculture conferences. The terms offer so much yet often deliver so little when we try to apply them. Indeed, it appears crop farming is accelerating away from us with self-steering, precision applications, GPS mapping and, soon-to-come, self-driving or driverless tractors.

For more than a decade, livestock sectors have been focused on gathering data on environmental impacts, feed and water consumption, and performance. The aim is to capture, store and analyze this data, to help farmers. This will surely lead to an increased understanding of our businesses, better decision-making on-farm and increased livestock productivity, health and welfare. This trend has definitely set businesses on a journey, but not so many businesses have seen the actual, tangible benefits and extra profits related solely to the new technologies they have implemented.

Most recently, we have seen a focus on using technology to conduct the same evaluations as a skilled stockperson, focusing on sight, sound and smell, with a lot of activity around visual data. Some technologies have been specifically developed for the agricultural implementation, such as camera weighing systems or microphones listening to animals, while others have been taken from other sectors and adapted for agriculture, such as an electronic ‘nose’ originally designed for human health or robotics from the nuclear industry.

We now appear at a point where the possibilities of technology know no bounds. We have reached a place where we appear full of data, with more different data sets arriving daily and an ever-growing desire to find ways to use this data, from generating improvements, validating supply chains and, more recently, answering questions around sustainability. However, there are still few ways of turning any of this data into real-life business actions to deliver value to livestock farmers.

Finding the right problems for the right solutions

Technology ideas are easy to come by, but to be effectively applied, they must be scalable.

Although the specific problems in different livestock sectors vary, there are some common themes. Primarily, we see technology being developed to bring new insights and understanding, reduce the demand on labour and compile data to enhance the prediction of animal health challenges. Examples of this include monitoring animal activities to understand behaviour, using robotics to support human tasks such weighing pigs and analyzing sounds to predict swine respiratory diseases.

Most of the digital and technology solutions we see globally are originating from a ‘start-up’ culture, as a spin-off of an established business, academic institution or as a standalone company with a product idea. By their very definition, start-ups require significant investment or early adopters willing to fund the realization of a concept. This has really driven most developers to answer the call of their investors by offering new business models, innovative approaches and a drive to finding solutions that are believed to meet the mutual needs of a global livestock sector.

In the last few years, we have seen larger supply companies acquire technology from start-ups rather than incubating it internally, and they are also showing a desire for these innovative solutions to support their legacy products. It appears that we may be on the cusp of seeing innovations implemented within existing supply chains that have a need to improve performance, but relatively few of these solutions have seen rapid global scaling to date. Innovators are still wondering who the customers are for their solutions: farmers, processors or allied supply industries?

Companies in livestock are now very committed to addressing the demands of their own sustainability pledges. While these initiatives complement good business practices with resource efficiency and output optimization, what will also be needed, moving forward, is a way to validate sustainability claims. This is where digital insights can really support a business, and it is an area in which technology uptake will likely continue to grow.

Return-on-investment should rationalize uptake

Even technology that ‘works’ can lead users astray. Speller urges caution, with an analogy: a compass can help guide you out of the woods, but if you head north in a straight line while relying only on the compass, you will probably run into a tree.

Digital technologies have the potential to support productivity gains on-farm, but how is that value realized? Consider the use of insights and technology to improve uniformity in a batch of pigs delivered to a processor. If the supply contract does not reward the producer for the improved uniformity, the processor gains a more desirable carcass without any costs incurred, while the producer pays the price without much direct benefit. On the other hand, if the processor is offering a premium for pigs raised without the use of antibiotics (RWA), the producer may have an incentive to implement technology that allows for improved decision-making around disease issues.

Uptake of digital solutions and technology differs across livestock sectors and regions of the world. Ideas and offerings have been around in a ‘proof of concept’ format for many years, so there may be an argument that uptake is too slow. The availability of commercial-ready offerings is increasing, but many producers are still trying to determine the return-on-investment (ROI) for these solutions.

What we need to see now is the growing acceptance and use of these digital solutions, as not only does this endorse the solutions themselves to the industry, but it allows innovators to learn and adapt their technologies much faster, as they can see how their solutions being deployed in the real world, at scale.

Slow but steady progress – the way forward

The successful and practical implementation of digital solutions and technology in livestock sectors can be seen more as an evolution, not a revolution. There are still critical issues to address, such as rural internet connectivity and the declining cost of hardware to catch up with the aspirations of innovators.

In many farm enterprises, the margin between profit and loss is incredibly narrow, so solutions must be cost-effective, offer strong and reliable ROI and meet the current day’s needs. All this from the coming together of academia, start-ups and large corporations makes this is a hugely interesting and exciting time for all involved.