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Digital solutions in the beef cattle sector - part two

In this next article from ÖMKi's animal husbandry team, we will show you how our research started, why sustainable agriculture is important for the future, and who we, the people behind the project, are. 

ÖMKi, the Hungarian Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, is the only research institute in Hungary specializing in organic farming. It was established in 2011 to promote the development and wider application of organic farming in Hungary.

What does organic farming mean?

IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, defines organic farming as a system of cultivation designed to preserve the integrity of soils, wildlife, and human health. It is based on natural processes, and avoids the use of harmful substances. Organic farming combines tradition with scientific research and innovation. In this way, it seeks to protect the environment and, while taking social and economic aspects into account, to create an agriculture and food industry that promotes a healthy lifestyle.

Why is organic farming important?

In response to global environmental, social and economic challenges, in recent years, the research and development of sustainable food production has become a major field of scientific inquiry.

What are these challenges?

  • The world population is expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050
  • Extreme climatic events caused by climate change significantly reduce agricultural productivity
  • The global use of chemical pesticides is detrimental both to our health and to the environment
  • Poor nutrition is one of the leading causes of death, even in developed countries.

Organic farming in Hungary

For Hungary, organic farming is one of the biggest opportunities for the renewal and long-term sustainability of the Hungarian agricultural and food economy. In Hungary, certified organic farming took place on 301,430 hectares – 6.1% of agricultural land – in 2020.

60% of the organically farmed land in Hungary is grassland, which is primarily used for animal husbandry and the maintenance of biodiversity. Within animal husbandry, the transition to organic farming has so far been most widespread in beef cattle raising (table 1).

   Organic livestock in 2020

Number of individual animals

   cattle

26087

   beef

21983

   dairy

767

   other

3337

   pigs

3499

   poultry

95349

   sheep

8506

   goats

611

Table 1: Organic livestock in 2020
Source: CSO (Hungarian Central Statistical Office)

Animal husbandry and the difficulties it entails

Animal husbandry: the keeping of animals under conditions in which their health and well-being depend on the attention and care of humans.” (Decree 32/1999. (III. 31.) of the Ministry of Agriculture)

What does the welfare of livestock depend on? Without doubt, primarily on the farmer and his or her attention and care.

Animals need daily care!

A farm functions (well) if it is managed professionally. However, a farmer certainly does not have enough time and energy to monitor animals daily on both a herd and individual level, especially at a time when urgent seasonal work is coming up for the crops grown on the farm. Such periods are a necessity when it comes to organic farming, as a farm can only be certified organic if at least 50% of the animals’ fodder is grown on the property.  

However, a solution must still be found for the daily and, if possible, individual monitoring of the animals. That is why we are testing animal-mounted, non-invasive sensors on grazing cattle, which can allow a farmer to provide day-to-day care more easily and efficiently.

It is important to emphasize that the human workforce is not in any way replaced by the sensors, they are only there to assist! The sensors provide data on the condition of the animals and their environment, and the information allows us either to rest assured that everything is fine on the pasture, or, if a sensor detects an abnormality, to react with prompt human presence, observation, and intervention.

Charolais variety

Why do we think this technology is important in organic farming?

The most important tasks on an organic livestock farm are to maintain animal welfare, to prevent disease, and to intervene in a timely manner. The sensors give a rapid indication if an animal is behaving unusually, so we have the opportunity to intervene before the problem worsens, veterinary treatment is needed, or, in the worst case, only a carcass is found in the pasture.

Too few people?! This may seem a strange problem to suggest in the context of the global population of 9 billion predicted above, but it shows well how misleading it can be to refer to global data when it comes to solving local challenges. Here in Hungary, at least, we can definitely talk about a shortage of people, especially in the profession of animal husbandry. One of the biggest concerns of livestock farms is that there are too few potential employees who could be entrusted by the farmer to understand and reliably take care of their herds. Indeed, finding workingman of any kind is becoming increasingly difficult. Unfortunately, we cannot help with the lack of manpower, but some of the knowledge of professionals is already available in digital sensor applications, which, when used properly, multiply the ‘farmer’s eyes’. This is because the sensors can be excellent monitors by recording individual observations of each animal, learning the behaviour and habits of the animals, and sending signals and alarms when they deviate from these, for instance by signalling the onset of oestrus or sending a health alarm. The sensitivity of the sensor system is many times that of a human, especially when a farm has not ten but 50, 100, or more animals out on grazing pasture from spring to early winter, which we do not have the physical capacity to observe them in daily. When a sick or injured animal is discovered in time, we can provide individual examination and treatment appropriate for the condition. In extreme cases, the animal can be sent to the slaughterhouse to end its suffering and minimize losses.

In animal husbandry, particular attention should be paid to daily feeding. This requires focus, planning, and expertise. For animals primarily fed by grazing, it is important to consider the classification of the grassland (what rules and obligations must complied with), its capacity to support livestock, how to plan its grazing segmentation, the species which the land is best suited to supporting, etc. Sensors can also help us plan the grazing (based on this year's experience, we have already made grazing proposals for our research site next year). The sensors can also help prevent serious problems during feeding – i.e grazing – as for instance they can indicate any changes in rumination at the herd level (the pasture has been exhausted), there is an increase in their average step count / general activity levels (they are looking for new sources of food), or they enter a mass febrile state (suggesting the presence of poisonous plants in the pasture area). By following the precise location of the animals, we can also see which are the most frequented grazing and resting areas, and which parts the animals avoid.

Sensors can provide accurate information on how much each animal or herd ruminates on average: rumination is one of the best indicators of whether and how much an animal is eating, whether it has health problems, and whether the quality and quantity of pasture is adequate. It gives an accurate measure of the capacity of a given pasture to support animals. We also need to know the drinking habits of the animals, when and how often they visit drinking troughs, and how long they stay there – is there enough water in the trough for all the animals, even in the scorching heat? Are there any animals that don’t drink while the others do? Where, indeed, do the animals get their hydration from? Is the water content of the grass sufficient, or do they use puddles in rainy weather? The temperature data from rumen boluses, for instance, can provide exact answers to these questions.

With pasture-fed animals, special attention should be paid to the prevention of heat stress, and shady places should be provided, as well as sufficient drinking water. The sensors can also help us detect these problems, for example by indicating the panting associated with heat stress.

From a breeding perspective, the sensors can give the farmer a prompt indication of oestrus, on the basis of which we can even filter out unimpregnated cows. In organic farming it is mandatory to give preference to natural mating, so the bull also plays an important role in the herd, and the sensors can give us a lot of useful information in this regard too, for instance about how active he is. The time of calving is also of critical importance, especially in the beef sector, where in many cases difficult-birth breeds need human help. The software for the sensors sends a calving alarm to the farmer so he can hurry to the scene in time to reduce the chances of critical situations (calf death, cows being in danger of their lives).

The development of an individually tailored feeding and disease prevention system in free-range dairy farms using precision sensors. 

ÖMKi has been operating an on-farm participatory research network since 2012 to promote sustainable and competitive domestic agriculture. The on-farm research network is, in essence, a system of field experiments in Hungarian organic and integrated farms. It means setting up simple experiments in real-life situations on working farms to suit the production goals set by farmers. The themes of the experiments will be developed together with the participating farmers.

On the basis of recent years’ experience, and taking account of current domestic and international trends in sustainable agricultural innovation – in order to solve the problems detailed above – the ‘Development of a Customized Feed and Disease Prevention System in Free-Range Dairy Farms Using Precision Sensors’ study was launched in 2020, as part of the ‘Precision Solutions for Sustainable and Competitive Agriculture’ research project, which will run until 2023.

The implementation of the research is supported by the Hungarian National Rural Network (MNVH).

Introducing the team

The team is directed by project leader Dr Gábor Pajor, and includes four other researchers and research assistants. A beneficial degree of collaboration has developed with the farmer involved in the research, as well as with the animal care team. We are also in frequent contact with the directors and developers of the sensor companies, and in exchange for their helpful support, we share useful practical experiences and ideas with them. You can read more about our researchers, i.e. the authors of the article, by following this link.

The next part of the series will cover the selection and presentation of the research site.

Dr Gábor Pajor is a project leader, researcher, veterinary data analyst, and computer scientist

Dr Aliz Márton, research assistant with a degree in agricultural engineering, PhD

Petra Balogh, research assistant, Certified organic farming engineer

Miklós Biszkup, research assistant

Barbara Babay-Török research assistant, MSc in Organic Agricultural Engineering, certified animal husbandry engineer

Source of the article: https://agrokep.vg.hu/gazdalkodas/allattenyesztes/digitalis-megoldasok-a-legeltetett-husmarha-agazatban-2-23430/

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