Ag Tech

The triple threat to beef… and the technologies that could save it

Aidan Connolly, 17/07/2018

A comprehensive analysis of many of the new ideas and technologies reshaping cattle production all over the world compiled by Aidan Connolly, chief innovation officer of Global animal health and nutrition company Alltech


SINCE man hunted and got a taste for the meat of the Auroch, later domesticated into the ancestors of modern cattle breeds, the market for beef has grown steadily.

Aidan Connolly

The last 10 years have not been so kind, with plummeting beef consumption and higher prices.

There is some light, as meat intense diets like paleo and keto have turned some consumers back to beef, but just at the point when the cattle industry has become more consolidated, sophisticated and consumer focused it is ironically facing some of the greatest existential threats to its 10,000 years existence.

There are three new primary threats to the beef industry:

  1. Lab-grown meat

Touted as sustainable, welfare friendly or conversely dismissed as ‘fake meat’ the clear intent of growing meat on petri dishes is to displace the consumption of red-meat. Despite concerns of how ‘friendly’ the technology really is, meat producers such as Cargill and Tyson foods have invested in startups in this market.

  1. Environmentalism

Environmentalists advocating ‘Meatless Mondays’ and other initiatives at consumer level have been unremitting in their attacks on the meat industry. These action groups have used sometimes dubious data to support their contention that cattle, and specifically beef uses more water, more resources and emits more greenhouses gases then other human choices. Their relentless attack appears to be having an effect on red meat consumption in the US and Europe.

  1. Other meats

Chicken meat consumption continues to grow at 2% a year. On the back of its cheap prices, neutral flavor, ease of cooking and unrestricted by religious constraints, it is predicted rise to become the world’s favorite meat (taking over from pork). At the same time fish has been positioned at the premium end of the market, touting human health benefits such as DHA and Omega-3. Both are stealing market from beef.

The results of this triple threat are clear; Beef consumption has stagnated for the last ten years and despite projections for growth, in markets such as China, new ways of thinking are required.


So how to respond?

Can we manage the individual animal to maximize performance? Cattle are still one of the most efficient ways to convert grasses and fiber into food. Can pasture be precisely managed? Can we learn to preserve natural resources and invest in sustainable decisions that boost soil health? How can technology help us manage pastures & forage production better?

What about the consumer? Can we improve the product thereby improving the experience to create more consistent flavors, cooking, dining allied with meeting their questions about welfare and the environment?

More than most other protein producing industries, beef production needs an injection of new ideas, new technologies.

Smart precision farming requires digital technologies to develop better management practices, accuracy, and methods. Using the 8 technologies framework can help us to see the improvements the industry needs to embrace to join the movement to answer this triple threat.

  1. Sensors:

Through the use of sensors, cattle producers are capable of tracking virtually anything within their herd. Farmers are expected to monitor an animal’s health and comfort, which can prove to be costly and time consuming if done manually. With the implementation of wearable sensors, such as a collar, ear or leg tag, farmers are able to monitor anything from rumination, general animal health, or the detection of diseases more efficiently.

For example, there are several companies offering calving sensors to notify the farmer when a cow is expected to give birth. Moocall’s calving sensor does this by monitoring tail movement patterns triggered by labor contractions. When the tail reaches a certain level of intensity the Moocall sends a text message to the farmer’s cell phone. JMB North Americahas a sensor that alerts farmers when a cow’s water breaks. Other calving sensor options include the AfiAct 11 Leg TagCow Call, and Vel’Phone. This technology can greatly improve calf survivability and allow farmers to be more effective in their time and energy efficiency.

The University of Calgary is testing how accelerometers can be used to detect diseases within a beef cattle herd. The accelerometers are first attached to the identification tags in their ears because the movement in this area can show how much time is being spent eating, chewing cud, moving and resting. CowManager, a temperature sensor that also records movement related to eating, ruminating, walking and estrus activity. Similar sensors include TekVet, FeverTag Quantified Ag Allflex, and Precision Animal Solutions. These clips can measure changes in body temperature to help detect illness, reducing the chances of further infection to other cattle, significantly lowering costs while simultaneously increasing animal welfare.

The director of the University of Kentucky’s Veterinarian Diagnostic Lab, Craig Carter, has performed research on a similar algorithm that can differentiate healthy from sick cattle and it will generate alerts for specific animals to be treated. Micro Technologies AmerisourceBergen has partnered with Geissler Corporation to market, install and service the Whisper* Digital Stethoscope. This is the first tool that has been developed to score severity of BRD in cattle.

Vital Herd’s e-pill sensor is ingested by the cow and sits in the rumen, and collects data in body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, pH levels and other parameters. Another rumen bolus sensor, Moow, can measure CO2 and NH3 concentration, temperature levels and pH balances for up to three years, and all data is sent to local or cloud storage. Other rumen acidosis sensors include eBolus, and VetAsyst.

Heat detection in beef breeding can be crucial, and sensors like Heatime HR LDHeatime ProQwes HR-LDRumiWatchSenseTime Beef, and Cow Scout help to accurately identify the best insemination time. All also watch changes in rumination patterns to try and catch potential health problems.

Locating specific animals has been made easy with CowView and Smartbow. These neck and ear sensors localize every cow in real time to easily find which ones need to be checked, inseminated, treated or moved.

The GrowSafe platform uses biometric sensors and data sources to continuously track and monitor sick and poor performing animals. It also can measure an individual animal’s gain and current market value, which helps maximize profits.

Vence, a virtual fence system can eliminate the cost of traditional fencing and make it simple to rotate cattle and keep them within specific boundaries through the use of a neck collar. Animals learn to avoid certain areas by receiving low voltage shocks or uncomfortable sounds to let them know when they’re approaching a part of the pasture they shouldn’t be heading toward.

ClicRTechnologies has also made strides in entering the beef industry by creating the ClicRweight system which replaces the traditional gravity weighing system. This new scanning station system is placed where the animal would normally eat and can gather statistics quickly and accurately on each animal as it steps on to the scale without any human intervention thereby reducing costs and allowing for better analysis.

On the consumer side, food safety is of growing concern. When the quality and freshness of hamburger meat is in question, it is often tossed out simply because people don’t want to take the risk. Safe Food Scientific has developed a biometric sensor that allows consumers to know if the beef at home is safe to eat. Different forms of bacteria in beef reproduce in different conditions; access to nutrients, water and temperature, can all affect how and the rate at which bacteria grow. Beef-Fresh Check tabs use biosensors to detect bacterial contaminants and help consumers determine if the meat is safe to eat.


  1. Drones:

These small aircrafts are finding more uses in the cattle industry by allowing producers to easily manage feedlots and ranches. Farmers are using drones to check fence lines, spot holes or pockets that might need to be fixed, or check water troughs and gates in remote locations through aerial images and video. Some models can run on their own after being flown through the route just one time, like the DJI Mavic AirDJI Mavic Pro, and Phantom 4 Pro. By manually showing the drone where to fly, it will follow the same path for routine checks without extra assistance.

When measuring pastures, the traditional strategy would be to use plate meters, pasture probes and tow-behind devices but cameras on drones are becoming capable of performing the same task. Farmers can also estimate the amounts of feed on farm, in particular where there are areas of different growth.

The wireless camera can assist with precision livestock by notifying a beef producer that a cow has calved or when locating a lost animal. Thermal cameras like the DJI Zenmuse XT are able to distinguish cows from other heat sources and can spot animals underneath canopies or trees. Other popular drones used for scouting cattle include the Honeycomb AgdroneDJI Matrice 100DJI T600 Inspire 1DJI Phantom 3 AdvancedeBee SQ drone, and the Lancaster Hawkeye Mark 111.

Looking ahead, drones have the ability to advance enough to spray other pest-deterrents directly onto herds instead of going and manually spraying by hand. From a teaching perspective drones can be used to teach veterinary students and ranchers how to move livestock using low-stress handling techniques.

  1. Robots:

On a beef operation, robots can perform small, common tasks such as daily feeding. Hanson Silo Company has partnered with Trioliet to manufacture a robotic feeding system. This self-automated robot will fill itself with feed, then mix and deliver the food to animals in the barn. As long as the feed bins are kept full, the robot can run on its own and feed about 700 head of cattle up to 12 times a day. This added number of feeding time is even better for the animal since it can ruminate better when eating more frequently. Other companies that produce automated feeding robots are RovibecKUHN System TKSTKS AgriLucas GJeantilValmetalWasserbauerPellonWIC System, and Hetwin.

Image courtesy of Hanson Silo.

The Swagbot is a robot that can move groups of cattle, tow heavy trailers, and navigate around ditches, waterways, and other rugged ground. The University of Australia is trying to teach the robot to identify sick or ill animals by fitting it with temperature and motion sensors.

One of the largest meat packing plants in the world, JBS, has invested in Scott Technologywhich is a New Zealand-based robotics firm. The meatpacking company is looking at ways to possibly incorporate automated machines to turn a whole cow into certain cuts like steaks and roasts. Even though these robots can use visual technology to cut into a carcass, a beef carcass requires the robot to feel instead of seeing, which means it must be able to feel how deep a bone is to remove certain cuts of meat. This type of skilled cutting hasn’t been mastered by a robot yet, but the time and investment are being made to possibly meet this goal.


  1. 3D Printing:

A new world of food processing is becoming a reality with 3D printing, and a lot of research is being done by Meat and Livestock Australia. This type of technology opens up the opportunity to take low value meat cuts and create new types of food. According to MLA, at least one third of each carcass ends up as hamburger trimmings for fast food chains. This new technology would give typically lower valued meats, such as offal, a new avenue for consumption, thereby creating a new opportunity to increase value for each carcass. This could potentially put more money in the pockets of farmers and ranchers.

Where else are 3D printers making their way into consumer lives? Nursing homes! Because printed beef is easy to chew and swallow, Germany has incorporated 3D printers in 1,000 nursing homes to the content of most residents as it is considered more appetizing than the pureed food that was previously served.

  1. Blockchain:

Now more than ever consumers are demanding complete transparency when it comes to purchasing meat products. Lack of knowledge about origin and concern over foodborne illness has left 75% of consumers distrustful of food labels, according to this Label Insights study. Blockchain could be used to reinstate the confidence in food products at the store and to trace products along the entire supply chain from the producer to feedlot, feedlot to processor, processor to wholesaler, and wholesaler to retailer.

Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative were the first suppliers in the US to use this technology. Their products now contain a QR code that can be scanned to see a “digital history” to learn where the beef came from and how the animals were raised. This information includes stories from the farmer and butcher who contributed to the final product in the stores. In China, InterAgri uses blockchain to allow consumers to trace the cow’s breed, when it was slaughtered and what bacteria testing it went through.

Wyoming beef producers have combined efforts to create BeefChain, which allows consumers to have pasture-to-table traceability. Each animal receives an RFID tag that will be linked via blockchain. The assigned number follows the animal throughout the production process. Consumer can help shape this service online by submitting areas of interest or specific questions they have. The organization promises to send information and to adapt its service to meet future interest.


  1. Artificial Intelligence:

Livestock farmers are now faced with the challenge of growing animals to a condition that matches market and consumer specifications and timing. Even farmers that have been working with cattle for generations can struggle to predict an animal’s yield potential prior to sale. However, AI technologies can be used to accurately predict an individual animal’s potential, as well as fat content, at any point in time by using cameras to analyze the herd.

Researchers at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) have developed such technology by using off-the-shelf cameras on purebred Angus cattle farms. These cameras operate at 30 frames per second and can capture contours that reflect fat and muscle depth and size, and the information is then converted to 3D images that are processed through artificial intelligence algorithms to provide an accurate condition score for each animal. Different shapes, such as muscling, are given a mathematical description and assigned a value, and that can be used to estimate a cow’s condition based on the 3D shape the machine can “see.” This type of technology allows farmers to see at any given point where each individual animal is at any level of maturity and can select animals with superior measured traits for breeding the next generation. When a farmer can make decisions based on high-quality and real-time information, in low-stress environments, they will see better quality beef product results that can match consumer preferences.

Not only are farmers trying to meet market specifications, but they also are constantly trying to manage their large herds effectively. Cattle Watch has developed a remote monitoring system through AI, deep learning and mass data algorithms that monitors large cattle herds on a wide spectrum. This system can prevent animal theft through GPS satellite tracking and GeoFencing to stop animals from straying outside of the designated lot. It also has an automated animal counting technology that can count large herds of cattle in a short amount of time and can monitor the health of each individual cow.


  1. Augmented Reality:

The cattle industry is now working to mix the real world with the virtual world by using only a pair of glasses or your cell phone. AR portrays a virtual image atop what is actually there, allowing for new information to be seen that might not be otherwise and in real time. Farm VR has created a farming technology that projects images of 3D objects from architectural drawings. If a farmer is interested in buying a cattle lot, he or she can take the drawings of the lot and project it around them, so they can see what it looks like before building it.

University classrooms are even using projected images to teach bovine anatomy. Harper Adamscan take a full look at an intact cow, its skeleton, blood flow, and detail of the udder by looking through the Bovine HoloLens. Students are able to perform dissections of the udder to know what to expect and can walk their classmates through the process to help learn the procedure.


  1. Virtual Reality:

Virtual reality is fairly similar to augmented reality because it also is a 3D, computer generated environment. These environments move as you move, and the images appear life-size to each individual. Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association is using virtual reality technology to demonstrate life on a farm to the public. People don’t have to actually be on the farm to hear and see from the producer how they take care of the animals and what the life cycle is, and it’s a way to engage and educate the consumer. Not only does this address common misconceptions but they get to relate back to the actual farmer. LiveCorp also offers a similar opportunity for consumers to experience the transportation side of an animal’s life as the technology takes the user visually from a quarantine facility to a loading vessel. These efforts are in the hopes of better improving the understanding of consumers and how the production process works.

Pre-sale auction inspection is also set to enter the virtual reality realm with Elders to become one of the first livestock agencies to offer 360-degree selling to customers (Check out the video). Partnering with Tim Gentle has allowed Elders to record 360 picture and video experiences so that potential buyers can view the animals at any possible angle. Viewers can move the environment in any direction desired when viewing it through the reality headset. Buyers can project the auctions from any desktop or phone through the headset to view the auction in their own living room.

The Internet of Things

All eight of these technologies have the capability to work together through the Internet of Things or “internet of cows” as it has been called. It is IOT that connects sensors, drones, robots, etc., to computers and iPhone for data analysis and interpretation. Sensors such as MOOnitor, a cattle monitoring system which measures and collects daily activity as well as estrus cycles, uses IOT to transfer data and keep real time information at the fingertips of the farmer or rancher. Because the health of a beef cow directly affects the number of weaned calves each season, a technology such as this that both detects sickness and estrus in cows can improve calf yields, an important metric for beef producers. MOOnitor suggests it can potentially increase a herd’s calving rate by 30%.

A similar IOT system, BovControl, uses a cow’s information including birth date, medication, vaccinations and weight to determine when it is ready to be sold. Farmers can also track an animal’s temperature or location through an ear tag or smart collar.

AgriWebb is an app that can be used on your phone or tablet that allows you to track and keep up with all farm records whether you are on the go or walking around on the farm. At any given time, a farmer has access to feed inventory, financial reports, grazing movements, task management options, individual animal data and biosecurity plans, allowing for better compliance with external certification and monitoring organizations.

KEENAN InTouch provides a farmer with constant herd performance advice and information through the collection of data. Through this system, a team of nutritionists is available to farmers to assist with herd health management, ration formulation, weight gains/yield and costs to help improve cash flow. This technology allows producers to monitor and control all feed usage and waste which helps control the costs on feed budgets, and by maintaining control over feed with this system will help speed up finishing times for cattle.


The Nutrigenomics Piece

The last piece of the puzzle is nutrigenomics, the study of nutrition on the genome. Just like humans, it has been determined that what a cow eats directly affects its microbiome and therefore its growth and productivity. Previously it was believed that cattle should be fed minerals and supplements freely. But at Alltech we have seen that if we supplement animals with specific levels of nutrients and at specific times, it encourages the body to use nutrients more efficiently. Those nutrients should be in the form of organic trace minerals and not just any minerals or supplement combination. Epnix is more than just a product, it’s a practice that must also be implemented in order to truly get the most out of production cattle. (Check out #7 in this blog.)


The Cost/Benefit Conundrum

These concepts are what will allow farmers to maximize their management practices, increase productivity and efficiency and remain competitive to other meat products. Perhaps more interestingly is to extend the benefits to prosumer concerns such as animal welfare, environmental footprint or consistency of the final product. But the question remains, can beef farming become smart? By measuring feed and water intake in real time and comparing it with the productivity of the animal, we can gain all manner of new insights. We can only manage what we can measure. Beef producers should embrace technology to take advantage of genomic advances and use data to drive the potential that is unlocked with better understanding of the animal genome. Big data says a lot, but individual data tells a whole other story.

Producers evaluating the eight technologies may struggle to identify which ones to use and how to make those economic choices. Clearly the prices for all of these vary, as do the benefits for any of the 130 countries Alltech does business in so I will simply suggest some pointers as to which technologies offer the most potential.

Generally in beef, sensors are the most likely to offer clear cost benefits today. Machine vision is the most exciting and promises a lot. Blockchain might also, but this is still being rolled out. Augmented and virtual reality aren’t there yet either. The cost-benefits needed to evaluate are clearly the fixed cost investment (what equipment is required) and then the variable cost (what on-going feeds are required to run the system). I always recommend producers or farmers look to evaluate the technology on one feature or benefit, and to decide their purchasing decision based on that one criteria, assuming the benefit is valuable enough to them. Traditionally we all look for a 3:1 return but the transformative nature of these technologies might allow purchasing even at lower initial returns. If you ask agtech companies what question they fear most they’ll tell you, “Please give me the name and phone number of a successful customer using your technology.” Often the conversation stops right there!

Many thanks to Megan Ferrel for all of her research into the technologies and help with writing. Dan Dhuyvetter for his thorough and thoughtful analysis (you should write your own blog!) as well as Dan Herold, Brian LawlessTwig MarstonVaughn Holder and Alexa Potocki for their critique and adding some final touches.


This article was originally published on LinkedIn and is republished here with the permission of Alltech. To view the original article click here




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  1. Robin Shorthose, 17/07/2018

    To sell lots of meat you still need to produce tender, tasty, meat. The technology for this is well known -BUT you need to get the message to everyone that impacts the animals and their carcasses to ensure the quality of all meat is optimised!

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