Tech is driving transformative change throughout the livestock sector. Farmers can now take advantage of precision tools such as artificial intelligence, satellite imagery, drones, and thermal readers to not only help them take better care of their livestock but also embed sustainability throughout their practices. This was among the key points addressed by a recent webinar on the next generation of livestock farming, organised by The Parliament Magazine and AnimalhealthEurope, on 17 June.
“We’re convinced when it comes to generation Z, or the next generation, digital technology represents a connected-health approach that will deliver better farming decisions,” said AnimalhealthEurope’s Secretary-General Roxane Feller.
Praising farmer’s adaptability and their remarkable societal value, Professor Louise Fresco, from the Wageningen University, described the challenges and opportunities faced by the next generation entering the sector.
In these “new times”, Fresco said, young farmers must respond to increased societal demands - by protecting the environment and producing sustainable food - as set out by the EU’s ambitious Green Deal initiative and Farm to Fork strategy.
Asked whether consumers would prefer small-scale farms to use advanced tools, Fresco said the key issue is that both conventional and organic farmers “want the best kind of production and that means using all the best possible tools”. “Whatever the price of the food you’ll find on the shelf, a sick animal does not enter the food chain,” guaranteed Feller, recalling the EU’s high food safety standards.
In an expression of support, Professor Fresco urged society to help future generations of farmers overcome the prejudice against them over animal welfare and their footprint on climate change.
“We’re convinced when it comes to generation Z, or the next generation, digital technology represents a connected-health approach that will deliver better farming decisions”
Roxane Feller, Secretary-General of AnimalhealthEurope
Future opportunities in farming will allow young farmers to become more tech-savvy than their ancestors, Fresco continued. They’ll grasp the complexities of artificial intelligence and IT intricacies, which will be the drivers behind precision technology, traceability, and big data analysis. “We understand the agri-food sector and the livestock sector is moving towards this era of digitally-enhanced farming where there’s valuable data out there being generated,” added Feller.
“Six years ago, the main things discussed within the animal health sector were prevention — vaccines, parasiticides - and antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Over the past five years, the whole industry has evolved incredibly quickly to better understand farmers’ needs,” she affirmed, adding that the animal health industry believes in the power of new digital tools to support health management solutions, anticipate animals’ needs and support more sustainable farming.
“If we bring these [digital drivers] together, we can optimise the health of the animals, reduce their impact, ensure traceability, improve farm management, efficiencies, and productivity,” specified Feller. She continued, “In normal times you would only realise that a pig was getting sick two weeks later, with advanced tech you can immediately isolate the pig for treatment and save plenty of resources.”
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Affording innovation and farming ownership
Despite the technological advancements in agriculture, not all farmers are able to afford investments in innovative tools. “The biggest obstacle today is the cost of these digital systems,” highlighted Kerli Ats, the CEO of the Estonian Farmers’ Federation. Professor Fresco responded saying, “The money coming from the EU needs to be directed to innovation and not to income support,” adding that, “Policy should not hinder scientific advancement and the application of knowledge.”
Attempting to counter the high costs associated with farm management, Fresco proposed different types of farming ownership, in the form of partnerships. Small farmers should use the best possible technology, Fresco advised, alluding to shared farms, diverse functionalities, like tourism, or a model as a cooperative. “The majority of farmers do need to have productivity to have a decent income and to invest,” she noted.
Digital drivers and sustainability
Talking about equity in farming, Ats said it is “essential to find ways to ensure the agriculture sector and farmers have access to innovative and digital solutions”. In Estonia, Ats confirmed, livestock production is “really innovative”, and it has “enabled the farmers to be more sustainable” with precision farming and digital tools. “If I have all the necessary information about my animal’s health, I can make better management decisions,” said Ats, referring to the use of drones, 3D cameras and thermal readers in farms.
Tommy Heffernan, an Irish Veterinary Consultant and Educator, said the agri-food sector today is built upon a “tsunami of data” enhancing farmers’ productivity. Heffernan said this “phenomenal information” about animal behaviour is helping him predict health issues with diagnostic tools, which are also delivering a much-needed economic return.
“The money coming from the EU needs to be directed to innovation and not to income support”
Professor Louise Fresco, Wageningen University
Although data usage can unlock great potential in the farming sector, MEP Alexander Bernhuber stressed the danger of data leaks. If less promising data ends up with a bank, the MEP explained, farmers could be deprived from getting loans to invest in trucks or other practical tools. “The most important thing is that farmers need to be the owners of their data,” advised Bernhuber.
Roxane Feller reiterated the importance of data protection for animal health as she appealed to Bernhuber’s “political side” for future cooperation with the European Parliament. “We, as AnimalhealthEurope, are calling for a data strategy for animal health,” stated Feller, saying she had “concerns” the agriculture data strategy pushed by the European Commission, in February 2021, wouldn’t be broad enough to cover animal health.
Concluding the session, Roxane Feller pledged continuous support as “solution-providers” towards farmers and animal welfare stakeholders, maintaining, “The future is now, we are already there in terms of new technological advancements.” Finally, she stated that with integrated solutions “we empower farmers to deliver on the Farm to Fork strategy goals but also to ensure a generational renewal.”
This content was commissioned by AnimalhealthEurope and produced by Dods