WITH digital technologies invading livestock production at a rate of knots, the focus now needs to be on steering the juggernaut towards providing a producer the ability to make prescient and informed decisions, regardless of where they are.
This is the thinking of those at the forefront of digital agriculture research.
Head of the Livestock Systems Program within CSIRO Agriculture and Food, Dr Drewe Ferguson said what was emerging was the integration of information and data being collected on farm, whether it’s on animals, water infrastructure, feed base or soil moisture.
Where we want to end up is to be able to make decisions in advance, he said.
That would be a scenario where a farmer can get help from the most knowledgeable expert at a moment’s notice no matter where they are.
“Picture this: a producer determines there is a problem with pasture or a forage crop, he takes a picture of it, puts in the species, location and uploads that information,” Dr Ferguson said.
“A system trawls through the wealth of fact sheets, research papers and comes back with the most probable cause of problem.”
It is feasible, he believes.
In fact, it’s already happening in other sectors.
The cognitive computer system IBM Watson used in the medical field enables doctors to provide a set of symptoms and access options. It can read 40 million documents in 15 seconds.
“A key thing is its capacity to analyse unstructured data, such as news articles, social media posts and enterprise system data, to undertake searches without real detailed descriptors of what is trying to be achieved,” Dr Ferguson said.
“The volume of unstructured data is growing at a massive rate - an estimated 62 per cent each year and is expected to reach nine times the volume of structured data by 2020.”
Dr Ferguson gave an informative talk on where the use of digital technologies currently sat in the Australian red meat industry at this year’s Angus National Conference.
“The digital revolution is here and it’s a big presence in our lives,” he said.
“It will change the way we farm globally.”
Emerging technology trends that were disrupting livestock production included automation, the relatively new concept of blockchain which delivers a trustworthy record of transactions in a supply chain, sensor technologies, connectivity, information sources, artificial intelligence and decision systems.
Connectivity was a vexed issue in terms of remote and rural Australia, where some have download speeds of a glacier, but important breakthroughs were happening in this space, according to Dr Ferguson.
Google’s project loon, an automatic launch of a new balloon every 30 minutes to provide internet coverage, Facebook’s Aquila drone and CSIRO’s NGARA and LoRa IoT ecosystem are products and technologies working to improve connectivity.
Sensor technologies, whether static on the farm itself, worn by an animal or used through drones, were enabling the collection of information on a range of things, from animal health and welfare to performance and environmental benchmarking.
Automation, which has occurred on a big scale in broad acre cropping, was starting to enter the livestock game with the likes of walkover weighing systems, virtual fencing and e-shepherd.
What does all this actually mean for the producer on the ground?
“We are starting to see these technologies emerge on the farm and what is just down the track is connectivity beyond the farm,” Dr Ferguson said.
“How do we integrate the information we have on farm with information available outside it?
“Forecasting, market information, benchmarking, service providers, inputs - this is where there is going to be some game changing in the area of decision support systems.
“This will lead to real change in terms of how we optimise our resource and increase the efficiency of our operations.”
What was lacking at the moment, he said, was analytics that sit behind the integration.
“How do we combine the data streams to get more power out of them,” Dr Ferguson said.
“This is what will lead to the best informed answers to questions like where animals should be, should we be reducing stocking capacity or supplementing.”