Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) – Everything you need to know!

Livestock production is one of the pillars of the food industry in the world. However, it faces many challenges, including the rising demand for meat protein and dairy products of good quality, societal concerns over animal welfare and health, increasingly stringent environmental regulations due to the releases of harmful substances in the atmosphere, and the falling numbers young farmers entering the industry.

Besides, given that today’s livestock production is influenced by the consumers’ demands for high quality and safer products, there is pressure for more environmentally friendly production, zero zoonotic disease transmission, and improved animal welfare.

All these reflect a continuing change in how livestock operations are managed and lead to a new production model that has to be based around technology and innovation, exploiting the principles of Precision Livestock Farming (PLF).

Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) aims to combine all the available hardware with intelligent software and information and communication technologies to extract data from a wide range of data. It offers a management tool that enables a farmer to automatically monitor animals and create added value by securing improved health, welfare, yields, and environmental impact.

In other words, precision livestock farming is an embryonic technology that applies process engineering principles as the farmer’s aid for the automatic management of intensive and extensive livestock production. It has great potential to transform livestock production by efficient utilization of nutrients, early warning of ill health, and reduction in pollutant emissions. PLF technologies thus help farmers to increase livestock production and quality of production sustainably.

The essence of PLF is an integrated approach to livestock farming with automatic monitoring, modeling, and management to drive all processes in farming along defined trajectories to meet specified targets. Fundamentally, it requires a sensing system for outputs, a mathematical model of input/output relationships, a model-based controller with actuators for process inputs, and a target and trajectory for controlled processes.

If adequately implemented, precision livestock farming can bring about the following benefits:

  • Efficiency: More efficient and viable use of resources and reduction of harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emission per unit of product (precision feeding)
  • Diagnosis: Reduction in the use of drugs through early detection of pathologies, improvement of animal welfare
  • Prevention: Real-time management of the environment in livestock housing
  • Workload: Reduction of workload/pain through automation
  • Certification: Traceability of modes of management and events (animal welfare, environment), control of product quality (sanitary, nutritive etc)
  • Phenotyping: High throughput phenotyping for selection on new characters (robustness) and deployment of genomic selection

Precision livestock farming applications

1. Electronic monitoring of livestock

Electronic monitoring of livestock is, in fact, at the heart of PLF. The significant examples of electronic monitoring of livestock are identifying cows, pigs, and sheep using RFID tags, detecting oestrus, and measuring milk yield and composition in dairy herds. The most widespread use of PLF is to control the thermal environment of housed cows, pigs, and poultry where sensors for air temperature, humidity, and ventilation rate are integrated into controllers. These applications have been immensely successful in helping farmers to manage their herds or flocks.

2. Precision feeding

Although several PLF technologies aim to increase the sustainability of livestock farms, only precision feeding is indicated as the most promising PLF technology for reducing ammonia and GHG emissions from livestock farms. Precision feeding is all about getting the right nutrient to the right animal at the right time. It increases feed efficiency, productivity, and farm profitability by controlling individual feed intake, the amount and composition of manure produced, the associated emissions from waste, and the enteric CH4 production. Customized balanced feeding programs in grazing dairy cattle systems have been shown to increase productivity and reduce enteric methane emissions intensity (15-20%) and N excretion (20-30%), resulting in reduced manure emissions.

Other top applications of precision livestock farming include:

  • Intelligent ventilation control in livestock buildings
  • Improved thermal control via machine vision
  • Real-time cow gait tracking
  • Automated lameness detection in cows
  • Fence free automated grazing management, e.g., strip, cell, or rotational grazing
  • Automated cattle mustering
  • Provision of animal theft deterrent
  • Early warning system for broiler houses
  • Alerting farmers to fence breaks
  • Identifying the location of calving (or ill) cattle
  • Guiding cattle away from environmentally sensitive (or dangerous) areas.

Some PLF elements are already in use on livestock farms. Currently, PLF techniques are primarily applied to monitor poultry, pigs, and dairy cows’ health and welfare.

To realize the promise of precision livestock farming, three barriers need to be overcome before commercial uptake occurs. First, better PLF technology should be developed based on robust, low-cost sensing systems and data-based models with meaningful parameters to enable control and interaction of physical and biological processes. Secondly, appropriate applications should be identified with targets and trajectories for specified operations. Third, the development and demonstration must be completed commercially to demonstrate that any investment will have a reasonable return and the technology is reliable.

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