Feed pusher

A robotic feed pusher is an example of technology many non-farm professionals are surprised to learn are in use by dairy farmers.

MANHATTAN, Kan. — Like much of agriculture, the world’s livestock industry has seen its fair share of innovation over the past 20 years, dramatically changing the way ranchers raise their animals.

Sometimes, said a group of industry leaders, that innovation creates a “positive disruption.”

“The disruption that is on the horizon is real-time information,” Nicola Shadbolt, a professor at Massey University who spoke at a recent meeting of the Global Agenda on Sustainable Livestock at Kansas State University, said in a university news release.

“A rancher can get access to information that can help them make (an important) decision out on the farm. Consumers have access to information when making a purchase. There is power in having real-time information.”

Shadbolt was one of five members of a panel that was speaking about innovation in the livestock industry during the annual meeting.

Panelist Scott Hutchins, the deputy undersecretary of research, education and economics for the USDA, said some of the positive disruptions he’s seen in the livestock industry have focused on four themes:

  • Advanced genetics (such as gene editing and related technologies)
  • Digital agriculture
  • Artificial intelligence (which is helping scientists find cures for disease more quickly)
  • Whole farm management.

“Innovations are helping to reduce complexity in the livestock industry,” Hutchins said, noting an example of how herbicide-tolerant crops have helped to simplify the process of weed control.

“You could call some innovations disruptive, but maybe it’s just bringing the technology from the ‘rich world’ into the smaller countries,” said Nick Austin, the director of agricultural development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Technology, Austin notes, offers opportunities for small farmers to increase their productivity just as larger operations can. New tools and management practices benefit family farms just as well as they may benefit larger corporate farms.

Michelle Calvo-Lorenzo, a technical consultant for animal well-being with Elanco Animal Health, said people often think of the big breakthroughs in agriculture, such as data technology, artificial intelligence, genomics and biotechnology.

“But,” she says, “the example I like to talk about is one of the great disruptors we see in livestock production, and it’s one of the oldest — manpower … our people.”

Calvo-Lorenzo said managing the work force is “social technology,” noting that empowering and valuing workers has a positive effect on livestock “because the human-animal interaction is important to sustainability of the livestock industry.”

Eddy Pesantez, the undersecretary of livestock production in Ecuador, said his country is hungry for innovation in all agricultural sectors.

“With technology and research, we can target all of the things we need … and it’s a way to fight all of the diseases that we face,” said Pesantez, who addressed the gathering in Spanish.

All of the panelists noted at some point that social media plays a big role in advancing the livestock industry in the United States and around the world.