All across America’s heartland, farmers’ phones are lighting up with alerts and messages — from their cattle.
The nation’s 94 million cattle didn’t suddenly grow thumbs and start texting, of course. Instead, farmers and ranchers are using new technology to remotely monitor their herds’ health in real time.
These technologies — from biometric ear tags that light up when an animal is sick to software that algorithmically predicts which cattle need medical attention — don’t just improve animal welfare and save farmers time and money. They also help us overcome some of the biggest challenges facing agriculture today, from antimicrobial resistance to shortages of farm labor.
Consider how technology makes calving season less arduous for farmers — and safer for animals. Without monitoring technology, farmers often work through the night, making endless rounds in their trucks or all-terrain vehicles, looking for cows struggling with labor.
But modern monitoring collars can send distress alerts directly to farmers’ phones. That allows them to intervene as soon as possible — and still get a good night’s sleep.
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New technologies can also prevent outbreaks of disease — especially bovine respiratory disease, which spreads quickly on farms and in feedlots that house cattle from different ranches. The disease causes up to 70% of all feedlot cattle deaths and nearly $900 million in annual economic losses.
Artificial intelligence scientists and veterinarians have developed systems that can detect bovine respiratory disease in individual cattle before animals show any signs of illness. During intake at the feedlot, while the animal is still in the working chute, a ranch worker places a probe behind the animal’s right elbow. The probe “listens” to the animal’s lungs — much like a doctor uses a stethoscope on a human patient — and uses a predictive algorithm combined with other data points like body temperature to assess the animal’s risk for the disease.
The algorithm then tells users to “Treat” or “Do Not Treat” the animal with veterinary medicines and vaccines, via a message on their tablets or laptops. This precision helps veterinarians and farmers use medicines only when necessary, which saves them time and money.
Cutting-edge technologies like these not only improve farmers’ operations and animals’ lives, but also deliver huge benefits for society by making farming more sustainable.
Healthy animals use fewer resources. By helping avert premature deaths and identifying illness earlier in livestock, technology can enhance farmers’ ability to meet growing global demand for protein.
Continued technological progress doesn’t just depend on scientists, engineers and farmers. Policymakers also have a role to play. Next year, Congress will consider the Farm Bill, the colloquial name for legislation that’s passed every five years to fund everything from conservation to agricultural research.
It’s crucial to boost funding for programs like the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority, which helps safeguard the U.S. food supply from threats posed by animal diseases like African swine fever and avian influenza. And more money for extension programs — like public agriculture education — will ensure farmers are well-equipped to deploy the latest technology.
Technology will never replace farmers’ experience, instincts or hard work. But these new tools can help farmers and ranchers overcome the unique and growing challenges of modern-day agriculture — and meet the demands of consumers who are taking a greater interest in the environment, in animal welfare, and in knowing where their protein comes from.
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Dr. Justin Welsh, DVM, is the executive director of U.S. livestock technical services at Merck Animal Health.