AUTOMATED scanning of feed left behind in bunks is proving more precise and accurate than human estimation, presenting big opportunities for Australia’s lotfeeding industry to boost productivity and profitability.
Researchers trialing the technology will have the bunk scanner available for commercial release next month, representing a global first.
Meat and Livestock Australia’s Dr Joseph McMeniman, who heads up research and development for the grainfed sector, presented an overview of the vehicle-mounted bunk scanner at a producer day on backgrounding for feedlots run in conjunction with Agforce at Roma, Queensland, this week.
His portfolio has around 40 projects on the go covering automation, welfare, animal health, sustainability, productivity, training and leadership, all in consultation with the Australian Lot Feeders Association.
The feedlot industry directly and indirectly contributes over $4b a year to Australia’s gross domestic product value and supports 31,000 jobs, Dr McMeniman said.
And it is growing.
Automation was not new to feedlotting. As far back as the 1970s in the US, feed mills were fully automated with some feedlots even having conveyor belts delivering feed to cattle.
The issue has been breakdowns, with one little hiccup ceasing the whole operation.
So the race has been on to develop technology that is precise and accurate but also reliable and robust.
There was no point introducing automation that breaks down or comes with enormous repair and maintenance costs. It has to add value over a human and not be fancy technology for the sake of it, Dr McMeniman said.
“We want cattle to perform to their genetic potential in a feedlot,” he said.
Knowing how much feed is left in bunks was critical to optimising carcase weights and preventing digestive disorders, while also managing the efficiency of feed consumption, he said.
Feed bunk management is traditionally undertaken by a human bunk caller, whose role directly determines feed allocation for pens of feedlot cattle for a 24-hour feeding cycle.
Robotics company Manabotix developed the prototype bunk scanner, which has been undergoing in-field trials at Mort and Co’s Grassdale feedlot in Queensland.
The prototype’s primary sensing element is based on light detection and ranging, known as LIDAR, technology, developed in the the coal industry.
The scanner has an onboard computer which predicts how much feed is remaining and then it publishes the result at the end of measuring each bunk. It can work in day and night conditions.
The bunk scanner had proven more accurate and precise than humans, from slick bunks all the way up to masses of more than a tonne of feed, Dr McMeniman said.
The next step will be rolling out the technology among early adopters in the lotfeeding game.
Future research will explore using information from the bunk scanner to develop algorithms to feed cattle, Dr McMeniman said.