According to FAO data, global production of meat has grown about 5 times in just 60 years (from 1960 till 2020) and a further 50% increase of demand up to 500 million tons is expected until 2050, driven especially by the population growth and rising per capita incomes in the developing countries. This is an astonishing figure, quite hard to capture … but it’s a fact! And the burden is on the farmers … e increased demand of meat brought a consolidation in the farming sector with an increase in the number of animals per farm.
If it is true that the intensive farming model boosted productivity by giving farmers the opportunity to exploit economies of scale, it also showed significant pitfalls, especially in relation to animal health and welfare.
In the past (or even today in rural areas), farmers could monitor their animals individually and had enough time to perform periodical observations (usually 2-3 times per day) in order to detect signs of sickness or oestrus. On the contrary, in large operations individual animal observation is no longer feasible.
For example, if a farmer would use even just 3 minutes of its time to observe each animal in a farm with 300 cows, then it would spend 15 hours in this exercise! Hiring additional workforce for these tasks is simply not an option, given the slim margins in the farming sector…
As a result, with the intensive farming model the likelihood of late detection of health issues has increased significantly. At the same time, in case of infectious diseases, a large number of animals is affected.
A late treatment is not only unacceptable from an animal’s welfare perspective but has a negative impact on the profitability of the farmers: longer drugs cycles, lower weight gains, lost milk production, unexpected mortality, increased culling rate.
Looking at the external context, farmers are also the target of consumers’ pressure and policy makers regulations aiming at (1) improving animal health, welfare and living conditions; (2) increasing products transparency and traceability; (3) reducing environmental footprint (15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 33% of global arable land and 8% of freshwater withdrawals are related to livestock) and (4) minimizing use of antibiotics.
The latter is linked to the antimicrobial resistance, a very important topic at the moment. Antimicrobial agents are medicines used to treat infections of bacterial origin; excessive or inappropriate use of antibiotics in human medicine and animal husbandry lead to the emergence of resistant bacteria which survive antibiotic treatments. Since many antibiotics are not metabolised by the animal body, once excreted they pollute the environment, including soil and surface. Although the general utilisation of antibiotics in animal husbandry has recently declined in the EU, it is on the rise everywhere else and expected to double globally over the next 20 years.
It is clear that being a farmer in the 21st century is nothing short of challenge. This is where technology comes to rescue. In the past 10 to 15 years, farmers have gained increasing access to a large variety of tools that help them running their farms more efficiently and more profitably. With this new farming approach, known as Precision Livestock Farming (PLF), it is possible to focus on the animals that require more attention rather than on the entire herd. Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence are offering smart and cost-effective solutions to problems afflicting multiple verticals and farming is not an exception.
Coming Up: What is PLF anyway?