01 October 2021 – With animal agriculture keen to unlock more efficiencies in production to further sustainability goals and improve profitability, precision livestock farming technology providers are inviting the industry to consider adopting digital intelligence approaches to fine-tune its operations.
German market research agency, Produkt+Markt, has invested in studies exploring the current usage of precision livestock farming (PLF) technologies. Furthermore, it is developing reference databases for these tools and their providers to serve decision-makers wanting to explore opportunities in the rapidly growing worlds of smart farming and livestock production.
"The world around precision farming is exciting because these new technologies provide an opportunity to respond to subjects of growing public concern such as sustainability, food safety, pollution from animal production and animal welfare," the company's Animal Health and Nutrition Division Director, Ludger Rolfes told Feedinfo.
"A review of industry news shows strategic initiatives by industry players and investors gaining momentum in the development of this field, which can be seen in the new partnerships between animal nutrition companies and digital technology providers, or start-ups, developing precision livestock farming projects. This trend presents a new approach for agricultural input providers and for the feed industry, in particular. The solutions offered by automated data generation allows companies to drive the value of their business by sharing the results of deep analytics with customers, increasing profitability for both parties. Combining their key products with PLF technologies and smart services offers new strategic options for feed companies to counter the price pressure of a commodity business.”
In today’s Industry Perspectives, Mr Rolfes shares with us some of the insights the agency has been generating to explore opportunities and monitor how PLF technologies can change livestock and feed production.
[Feedinfo] What is key for us to understand when it comes to PLF technologies and how they can be implemented?
[Ludger Rolfes] PLF technologies are only one element within a precision livestock management (PLM) system because precise feeding recommendations require, in many cases, additional information provided by other systems (e.g., from the herd management programme). In the context of animal feeding, PLF aims to match nutrient supply (in quantity, quality, and composition) precisely with the actual nutrient requirements of animals, based on real-time sensor-generated data, including data analysis for precise feeding of individual animals or production batches/flocks by feeding robots.
[Feedinfo] How has the animal nutrition industry responded to adopting these technologies?
[Ludger Rolfes] We have found that feed companies, technology providers and farmers are increasingly investing in developing and utilising PLF technologies because they are looking to improve the efficiency of their operations. Furthermore, the ability of these technologies to improve production output by fine-tuning the most important cost item in livestock production – feed – is an important driver for their adoption by the industry. The fast development and adoption of these smart technologies affects all species segments.
While many analysts predict a global PLF technology growth rate of 8% for the next five years, our market surveys of producers show that the adoption rate varies widely by region, country, and species. Among larger livestock producers we often find about 75% of them are already using single PLF technologies.
However, complex PLF technologies linked with farm automation systems are still in their infancy. Rather than adopting a whole integrated system, farmers often follow a "core technology" and "add-on technology" adoption approach.
The "Add-on" approach entails farmers adopting PLF technologies gradually. This means they select sensors, software, and automated devices in line with their needs from different providers to explore the benefits offered by smart digital technologies with existing core production systems. Farms with a gradual technology adoption approach may require long-term additional service support on data integration, advanced analytics, and digital intelligence-based decision-making support. Without data integration, farmers cannot explore a holistic, decision-making support process.
"Core technology" adoption entails farmers investing in new core production technologies like dairy barns, feed management systems, or new milking parlours, and combining them with the implementation of PLF technology systems, allowing farms the opportunity to move towards digitisation and automation. This has led to some major livestock equipment producers, like DeLaval or GEA in the dairy segment, already enjoying a strong position as PLF technology providers.
[Feedinfo] Are all PLF technology providers or systems created equal?
[Ludger Rolfes] We have found that these production technology systems need to be supported by professional services to reduce operational risks. It applies above all to technologies that control automated feeders, the automated climate controls in animal production facilities, or the automated selection of animals for zootechnical interventions. A failure of digitally linked systems in high-tech farms is critical, and their servicing is therefore very important, as farmers emphasised in our interviews. The systematic collection and evaluation of practical experience are of great value for the successful commercialisation of PLF technologies.
However, even with a "system approach," core technology providers can have considerable technology gaps in their product portfolio.
For example, we have seen automated dairy farms operating a complex PLF technology system from a single technology provider. While some dairy farmers proudly showed us the animal performance-based automatic concentrate feeder, they were nevertheless unhappy that the system provider could not offer any solutions for roughage management or precise feeding of the calves.
Our surveys also highlighted another precision farming success driver which depends on the timely execution of animal-specific management interventions. In many cases, the window for precise animal treatment is very narrow. Farms without excellent operational processes may be left with inappropriate and late zootechnical interventions. PLF technology providers are focused on technical implementation, and they may underestimate the impact of the human factor associated with technology adoption. The engagement of on-farm change management support will be of growing importance.
[Feedinfo] What are some of the obstacles that stop some producers from considering and adopting these technologies?
[Ludger Rolfes] In our surveys, producers generally mention high investment costs and unclear benefits for their farms as the main reasons. However, we also see that the barriers to adoption vary extremely with the level of knowledge regarding PLF. Hence, we have developed a "Technology Readiness Index" to assess the level of awareness and usage of PLF on specific farms and classify farmers according to their needs, drivers, and barriers for further adopting PLF. Currently, we are preparing a new survey to apply this index to dairy producers and their potential adoption of activity tracking technologies.
[Feedinfo] How has Produkt+Markt itself adapted to be able to help its clients successfully understand these technologies and better navigate these obstacles?
[Ludger Rolfes] As a global leader in market research for agriculture, Produkt+Markt helps companies worldwide understand the dynamics of their marketplace. In response to the emerging PLF technology markets, we have developed our expertise, adapted our research methodologies, and invested in market intelligence. Most importantly, our dedication to livestock production and the agricultural business focus of our partners allows the generation of unbiased valid insights from people exposed to the reality of livestock farms.
[Feedinfo] A part of this process has been the development of your own PLF technologies database. How long have you been working on it, what exactly does it entail, and how have you employed it to help your animal nutrition clients?
[Ludger Rolfes] As part of our PLF technology development initiative, we conducted comprehensive literature reviews, explored information from PLF providers, and looked for existing PLF technology reference systems. It became clear that many of the existing overviews of these companies and their technologies are incomplete, have a limited value, and are not up to date. This finding suggested that investors, policymakers, or companies had to make PLF technology-related decisions without a sound understanding of globally available technologies. This was confirmed by our discussions with business development managers from PLF technology providers.
We considered this a high risk for stakeholders and investors, in particular. For this reason, we initiated the development of the Produkt+Markt PLF technology database with a systematic compilation of key product characteristics for each identified technology and the development of company profiles. This endeavour resulted in a couple of benefits: the current database version lists more than 200 cattle activity monitoring technologies and keeps records from more than 300 companies.
[Feedinfo] Let’s talk about consumers. How aware are they of PLF technologies? And what kind of impact can animal agriculture adopting these solutions have on them and policymakers?
[Ludger Rolfes] This question touches on a very important issue. When we talk about a technology-driven revolution in agriculture, investors only pay for parts of the technology development while farmers pay for the implementation and usage. The costs of this digital revolution, in turn, are passed on to consumers. Hence, it is of extreme importance that they value the impact these new technologies can have on the environment, natural resource usage, animal welfare, and food safety.
Our surveys amongst consumers disclosed that the vast majority are not aware of the potential positive effects of PLF. The introduction of these new technologies in agriculture is often perceived as helping to intensify agricultural processes, and not as an opportunity to establish a superior production system. PLF technologies may change the sustainability of medium-sized livestock farms. Our results are in line with a couple of recent publications from other research organisations. Society needs evidence of the expected positive effects of PLF technologies, followed by concerted communication campaigns to consumers to drive the perceived value of PLF.
[Feedinfo] Apart from these technologies improving productivity and efficiency, what other changes/disruptions should the feed and animal agriculture industries expect?
[Ludger Rolfes] Let's explore a few observed key trends and selected field study results related to the growing use of PLF technologies. Our findings suggest that farmers who want to develop the efficiency of their farms have a positive attitude towards new technologies, especially smart technologies. But this positive attitude does not mean that the smart technologies being used meet farmers' needs. Without the necessary information, users will challenge the systems' reliability, the underdeveloped support functionalities, system usability, missing interfaces to other farm process automation equipment and insufficient service support. These critical points have an impact on user experience. However, in some cases, this has not stopped farmers from buying PLF technologies from new players.
Many agricultural input and service providers develop their offerings by combining the products and services with smart technologies (e.g., by offering software, access to reference information systems, electronic sensors, or remote-controlled devices, etc.). It means farmers have a growing number of PLF technologies at their disposal for feed, animal health, and yield monitoring and can also implement different smart systems on their farms. Decision-making in agriculture requires a holistic analysis of information, but the parallel usage of unconnected PLF technologies creates a barrier to exploring generated data.
When considering the unprecedented decision-making capabilities of PLF technologies in agriculture, it is necessary to employ big data systems that connect sensors and devices. This is a well-understood opportunity, as seen by the engagement of large players like Microsoft or IBM in adapting their offerings to agricultural needs. Connected smart sensors and devices within big data infrastructures will create a new space for value generation. It is expected to cause major shifts in roles and power relations among traditional and non-traditional players.
Offering premium feed and opportunities to modify the nutritional value through supplements for smart feeding will remain the backbone of the feed business. But a new generation of players may unlock additional advantages if they explore PLF technology advances in optimising feeding at any life stage of an individual animal in combination with intelligent services to develop production. These technologies can also positively impact the bottom line and improve production standards concerning animal health and welfare, food safety, sustainability, and environmental protection.
Published in association with Produkt+Markt