Farming 2.0: How new technology is changing farming

New technological advances in animal health are transforming livestock farming for the better, writes Roxane Feller.
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By Roxane Feller

Roxane Feller is Secretary General of AnimalhealthEurope

24 Jun 2021

Animal Health Europe

There is a lot of talk in Europe right now about improving animal welfare on farms and also about reducing the use of antibiotics in the livestock sector. Improving animal health is a key first step to improving animal welfare, but contrary to what some may think, good animal health is not about ‘medicating’ animals. Our #’MorethanMedicine’ approach to animal health means not only ensuring access to innovative tools to prevent illness and support more holistic care, but also ensuring responsible use of medicines when needed.

There is good reason to be concerned about the potential dangers of overuse of antibiotics in both humans and animals. We share this concern, and actions have been taken in the livestock sector for well over a decade now.  Europe’s farming sector is in fact a contributor to protecting antibiotic efficacy. 

In the past decade, sales of antibiotics for livestock have fallen 34 percent on average, thanks to the efforts made by vets, farmers and our industry. This is reflected in recent statistics looking at different animal health products sold in Europe: vaccines now take up 34 percent share, whereas antibiotics are down to less than 12 percent.  

“In the past decade, sales of antibiotics for livestock fell by 34 per cent due to efforts of vets, farmers and industry”

Europe’s livestock sector has firmly moved to a ‘prevention is better than cure’ approach,  which has enabled the animal health industry to focus greater investment in innovations for disease prevention and earlier diagnosis and find new and better ways to improve the overall health and wellbeing  of animals.

Our industry is currently at the forefront of a technological and digital transformation which aims to do just that. By offering alternative solutions to farmers collectively known as Precision Livestock Farming, new tools can support farmers in providing optimal healthcare for animals to improve their welfare, support responsible use of medicines and ensure better traceability.

Breakthroughs in biotechnology, detection tools, sensors and robotics, genomic testing, and advanced vaccines, amongst others, are set to become essential tools for the future of both livestock farming and the veterinary profession.

The use of smart sensors in barns can capture data such as sounds, movement or temperature which can assist the farmer with more accurate care of an individual animal, even on a large scale. For example, thermal cameras allow farmers to monitor the temperature of their individual animals at any given time.

This means that a spike in temperature can be detected without even having to interact directly with the animal, signalling need for further care. That animal can then be checked for other signs of illness and cared for appropriately. Another example is sound sensors that can pick up key indicators of illness on farms, which - let’s face it - can be extremely noisy places.

On pig farms for instance, the use of sound sensors can pick up the tell-tale sign of a cough which may indicate respiratory illness. This means that an individual pig can be administered treatment if necessary or separated from the herd so that other animals are not infected. In fact, use of these monitoring technologies have proven to pick up signs of illness up to two weeks earlier than conventional practices. This can play a key role in reducing illness and the need to use antibiotics.

Both of these examples form a good basis for earlier diagnosis by a farm veterinarian, and further new tools are rolling out to allow point-of-care diagnosis. This means that the vet can decide immediately if an antibiotic or other therapy is needed and which to administer.

With these ‘lab on a chip’ style diagnostics, not only does this increase convenience for the user, but it once again helps improve animal health and welfare and supports responsible use of medicines. Meanwhile, new technologies such as DNA or mRNA are transforming preventive measures, and new vaccine administration methods are improving the efficiency and precision of mass vaccination through needle-free, automated or conveyor belt applications for instance.

For poultry, new methods even offer in ovo (in egg) vaccination. This not only makes the farmer’s job easier, but it can also encourage better vaccine uptake, which in turn offers better animal welfare, given that these innovations have the benefit of being considerably less invasive for the animal.

Many of these new technologies offer data collection, analysis, and delivery of relevant, real-time information directly to the farmer’s tablet or smartphone. There are of course costs associated with these technologies, and training on how best to use them is advisable.

“Breakthroughs in biotechnology, detection tools, sensors and robotics, genomic testing, and advanced vaccines, amongst others, are set to become essential tools for the future of both livestock breeding and the veterinary profession”

But by better connecting animal management factors, farmers can ensure more holistic farm management and provide more consistent and improved care for their animals. Therefore, it is essential that EU policies support farmers, in particular the younger generation, with access to such tools. They are an important part of what will make the difference for farmers when delivering on their sustainability objectives.

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This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or of the Dods Group


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