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2020 Mega Trends: Digital Livestock

January 10, 2020

Clinton Griffiths

Following a decade with the introduction of societal shifters like the smart phone and rapid expansion of social media, 2020 could be the starting block for the fastest technological race in agricultural history. Combining big data with cutting edge science, artificial intelligence and cloud connected technology has the potential revolutionize farming in ways only dreamed up in movies. We asked three farm futurists for their predictions for the next decade.

We broke the mega trends down to five key categories. Here are the mega trends for digital livestock.

Facial Recognition 

Several big livestock companies are investing in and developing facial recognition software for animals. The increase in computing power combined with machine learning and artificial intelligence is helping producers monitor and track their animals’ every move. This new digital 24 hour watchman is now being installed in barns, feedlots and in pastures to keep an eye out for variations in animal health, welfare and behavior. 

“This software can pick up lameness or variability in the animal about two days before a trained technician,” says Lowell Catlett, futurist, economist and former dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University. “Not only you can you can get better animal health, but it also helps you prove that the animals aren't under stress and that they've been treated well.”

As more animal faces find their way into facial recognition databases this powerful tool is likely to find new uses in livestock barns across the countryside. 

Fitness Trackers / Artificial Intelligence

The fitness tracker has made its way from the suburban wrists of health conscious millennials to the livestock facilities dotting the countryside.  

“It's kind of like your Fitbit watch,” says Catlett. “Mine can monitor my blood pressure 24 hours a day, every 10 seconds.”

That kind of information can help track feed or forage consumption while monitoring behavior around health or even predict estrous or calving likelihoods. 

“The ability to manage our herd from a farm to table will advance as we get much more detailed tracking,” says Jim Carroll, agricultural futurist. “We will continue to see this acceleration of these opportunities in terms of feeding strategies driven by technology, better management and efficiency.”

Mega Dairies

From 2008 to 2018, the U.S. lost some 17,000 dairy farms or a decline of 30%. Even as farms disappear, cow numbers are holding, and herd sizes are climbing to nearly a 250 head average. According to futurists, that dynamic of bigger herds getting bigger and smaller herds either diversifying or disappearing is expected to continue in the next decade. 

“In Texas there’s a dairy that’s milking 100,000 cows right now,” says Catlett. “If we’ve got about 9 million cows in the country then you only need 90 really good dairy farmers to supply all of the milk and dairy needs for the country.” 

Technology in animal monitoring and robotic milking and feeding is helping make that sustained growth possible. Although not everyone is convinced consumers will accept the mega dairy model. 

“I just think of course there's always danger when any industry turns into a monopoly or oligarchy with just a handful of major producers,” says Jack Uldrich, agricultural futurist. “It seems as though we're moving in that direction in the milk industry, but I think it could swing back the other way depending on how people support it.”

Designer Livestock

Like the innovations in crops, genetic modifications thanks to gene editing and CRISPR-Cas9 is poised to have a similar impact on the livestock and animal business side of agriculture. From fast growing salmon to China’s recent endeavor to create cold tolerant pigs, the ability to design animals that are suited for certain environments and resistant to diseases are a reality today. In a decade they may be the norm. 

Scientists and regulatory agencies however are still studying the long-term impacts of modifying major food animals. Ag groups like the National Pork Producers Council are encouraging leaders to improve the regulatory framework around gene edited animals pointing to fewer restrictions in competitor countries and even making it a policy focus for 2020.

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