Technology is changing how we care for livestock

You don’t have to look very hard to notice all the ways advances in technology continue to revolutionize our lives. Although still following tradition in many ways, animal agriculture has also embraced this revolution. Farmers and ranchers have been able to improve animal health, welfare, reproduction, record keeping and so much more.

Drone flying over field.

New products are being developed and tested every day, it seems. The goal is to continue to enhance the efficiency of modern farms and ranches while also improving animal care. Recently, I attended a talk by Dr. Andrew Huff, a professor at Michigan State University in the Veterinary Medical Center. He discussed the future impact of technology on animal agriculture – and it sure is an exciting one! We look forward to being able to take even better care of our animals using these new advances. 

Thermal Imaging 

Although thermal imaging is not a new technology, we are just realizing its application in animal agriculture. We can potentially use thermal imaging to determine aggressiveness, heats and infections in animals as those conditions are associated with elevated temperatures. 

Object Classification 

Photo credit: Cargill.

Cargill Animal Nutrition has partnered with a machine vision company, Cainthus, to develop a software to identify individual animals. Like snowflakes, each individual animal is unique, and the software will recognize individual hide patterns and facial features. The software will collect data on feed and water intake patterns, heat detection and daily behavior trends. Although the initial version will focus on cows, Cargill and Cainthus plan to expand to pigs, chicken and fish.

Pen or Chute-Side Rapid Diagnostics

Rapid diagnostic machines will provide farmers with real-time health information. The goal is to provide results while the animals are still in a handling chute (a narrow stall used by farmers and ranchers to safely restrain animals during exams and treatment). A quick diagnosis will allow for more accurate treatment of the individual animal and a better sense of overall herd health. 

Remote Sensing

When the animal is out in the pasture, remote sensing can be used to check on them. Farmers will soon be able to use radar detection technology to measure respiration and heart rates from a distance. This is similar to the technology used in self-driving cars. We can even mount this technology to a drone and monitor cattle herds in a pasture. 

Movement Sensors 

Cow wearing a collar.

Movement sensors can determine when an animal is acting abnormally, which can occur for any number of reasons. This can help to decrease the amount of time between the onset of illness and treatment. Some of the new models of this technology can take the animal’s temperature and locate the animal within a pen or pasture.  Farmers and ranchers may be able to download an app on their smartphones to have the information in their back pocket. The most common form of these sensors is as a collar or an ear tag.

Although many of these technologies are still in the development and testing stages, I can’t help but get excited about the potential. It is about to become so much easier to provide more individualized care. This will help farmers manage overall animal health and well-being even more closely than they do today with the tools available to them.

Does “big” mean “bad”?

Thirteen years ago, my family and I gathered in our living room on Sunday evening to watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Thoughts of having to go to school the next day lingered in my head. I knew the show was coming to the end because everyone was cheering “Move That Bus” in anticipation for the family to see their new house. However, their chant was interrupted by a phone call.  I sprinted to the phone. After saying hello in a somewhat spirited voice, my introduction was followed with a worrisome, shaky response. “They called the squad on your grandma. You all need to get to the hospital as soon as possible.”

This phone call was the beginning of my grandmother’s 12-year battle with dialysis. She was rushed to the hospital because her kidneys had failed and needed immediate treatment. Unfortunately, she was too old to get a transplant, but thanks to modern medicine, dialysis provided an avenue for continued treatment that sustained and increased her quality of life.

So what does this have to do with ‘big ag?’ Well, nurses and doctors are able to develop and deliver such treatments in part because American farmers and ranchers are able to produce enough food so other people can pursue careers of their choosing, like medicine. In the 1800s, each farmer grew enough food in a year to feed three to five people. By 1995, each farmer was feeding 128 people per year.

‘Big ag’ works to feed not only the farmers and ranchers but everyone else that is not in the agriculture industry, yet it sometimes gets a bad reputation. Why? What do you think of when you hear the term? Do you think of large farms that mistreat animals? What about thousands of acres covered in soybeans, corn, or other crops? Do you think of an industry so large that it comes across as threatening? When I did an initial Google search of the term, here are a few articles that appeared:

  • Corporate Farming, Wikipedia
  • How Farmers Can Use Data to Push Back Against Big Ag
  • Gagged by Big Ag
  • Big Ag is Rotten

This search helps illustrate the negative connotation associated with the term. But let’s dig a little deeper to help debunk these initial thoughts and opinions to show you that ‘big ag’ doesn’t mean ‘bad ag’.

Size of the industry

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, agriculture and its related industries contributed $789 billion to the U.S. gross domestic production in 2013. That is a lot of money; so yes, agriculture is a big industry. But food is a basic necessity for life, so it would make sense that farming and the processes that follow harvest would make up a significant part of our economy. And it is no secret that our population is increasing. More mouths mean more food so if we need to expand our agricultural production to feed more people, does that mean we are ‘bad’ by using more of our natural resources such as land?  On the contrary, the agricultural industry is using less land to produce more food.

A statement from the Envrionmental Protection Agency says:

“In spite of a growing population and increased demand for agricultural products, the land area under cultivation in this country has not increased. While advanced farming techniques, including irrigation and genetic manipulation of crops, has permitted an expansion of crop production in some areas of the country, there has been a decrease in other areas. In fact, some 3,000 acres of productive farmland are lost to development each day in this country. There was an 8% decline in the number of acres in farms over the last twenty years. In 1990, there were almost 987 million acres in farms in the U.S., that number was reduced to just under 943 million acres by 2000, and then reduced to 914 million acres in 2012.”

Size of farms

In the 1800s, 90 percent of the population lived on farms; today, it is approximately one percent. Because fewer individuals are involved in production agriculture and the population is increasing, it only makes sense that farmers would have to increase their operations. So why would bigger be bad? Some are concerned that bigger farms sacrifice animal welfare. However, this is not the case. Regardless of farm size, farmers and ranchers are still responsible for the care of their animals. The industry has also set in place practices that assist in these areas.

Farming is also a business, which means it needs to yield profits. (I think a lot of times we forget this because while farmers and ranchers consider it a way of life, it also needs to support themselves and their families.) A report from the USDA found that in recent years, 85-95 percent of farm household income has come from off-farm sources (including employment earnings, other business activities, and unearned income.) Would you be willing to get up a 4 a.m. every day of the year (including holidays!) to milk cows or spend 20 hours a day in the field if it only accounted for 15 percent of your household income? Increasing farm size helps contribute to profitability because it makes investments more worthwhile. Does purchasing a new car make you think twice? A new combine can reach up to half a million dollars! Do you even want to think about putting up a new barn?

I’m thankful for ‘big ag’

As I reflect on the term ‘big ag’, I am thankful that farming operations have increased in size and production. It allows individuals to specialize in other areas (such as medicine, engineering and the arts) which all contribute to our quality of life. It has given rise to new technology that aid in our environmental impact. And it has given an opportunity for a profitable future for American farmers and ranchers.

The Misconceptions of Animal Rights Activists: Part II

Last week, I gave an overview of some of the more general misconceptions presented at the FARM Animal Rights National Conference that I attended during my internship here at the Animal Agriculture Alliance.

As I am studying to become a veterinarian, I want to break down some of the over-simplified misconceptions presented at the conference. I hope you’ll see that science and animal husbandry are too complex to describe in the rudimentary—and baseless way—which the animal rights community often does. Read on to learn more…

Misconception: The calf is heartlessly ripped from its mother.

Reality: On dairy farms it is often the wiser choice to separate the calf from mom because: 1) The dam (mother cow) could be Johne’s positive, and 2) You have no idea what the dam’s colostrum quality is.  So, let’s get scientific.  Johne’s disease is a contagious, degenerative bacterial disease that does not present symptoms until later in life.  It is contracted from Johne’s-positive manure, mostly as a calf when the immune system is most susceptible.  There is no cure, leading to early culling of cows, so to separate the calf early is protecting the herd later.  Second, colostrum is the first milk that calves receive that is dense with immunoglobulins (immune-supporting proteins) to build their immune system.  There is a threshold for the concentration of immunoglobulins in colostrum where the concentration can be so low it leaves the calf susceptible to illness.  The only way to test the quality of colostrum is by collecting it from the dam – a first and second collection – discarding anything less than excellent.

Which leads to another misconception…

Misconception: Calves are denied their first milk.

Reality: Of course not!  What the animal activists fail to acknowledge is an essential practice in the dairy industry: collecting and feeding colostrum.  Colostrum quality is measured several ways, one being with a hydrometer to see the density of the colostrum: the denser, the more the hydrometer will float in the milk and therefore the more immunoglobulins present.  The best quality colostrum is frozen to be fed to a future calf while the calf of that current dam is fed thawed, high quality colostrum from a previous cow.  Formula colostrum is also available for purchase, but that is less recommended.  Basically, before jumping to conclusions, ask a farmer (or do the research).

Misconception:  Sick calves are left to suffer without veterinary care.

Reality: At the conference, Taylor Radig, a previous undercover investigator with Compassion Over Killing, was applauded for her story of “jumping the fence” into a sick calf’s hutch because no one was giving it love.  Well, Taylor, your ignorance may have cost several calves their lives if you then proceeded to track scours-manure into other hutches.  This is a matter of biosecurity, something we have addressed before as a serious danger associated with these undercover investigations.  Scours is an illness in young calves characterized by diarrhea, dehydration, and fever.  In most cases, farmers are able to get the calf through this with proper identification protocol and replacing milk feedings with electrolytes.  For farmers, it is critical that they have the knowledge to identify and treat an animal, acting promptly.  Having the ability to do this means minimizing that animals’ suffering while waiting for a veterinarian.

Misconception: Cats make great vegans.

Reality: Excuse me?  The term is “obligate carnivore,” and that applies to all cats – felids – both domestic and exotic.  I was made aware of this misconception not only by the pictures of emaciated cats on the news (ahem) but in the conference session “When is Killing the Lesser Evil?”  The dilemma presented was how owners can feed their animals meat if they themselves don’t agree with it morally.  This, my friends, is irrelevant: if you are a responsible pet owner and want your companion to prosper, work with your veterinarian to understand their nutritional requirements.  As obligate carnivores, the cat’s metabolic needs are met by the nutrients found in animal-protein, such as the amino acid taurine. And this doesn’t even consider cats’ biochemical physiology, having virtually no means of digesting complex carbohydrates: aka plant starch.

Misconception: Veterinarians today are only motivated by money.

Reality:  This is news to me because I don’t know many wealthy veterinarians, and yet it was referred to on several occasions.  One instance was when LA Councilman Paul Koretz spoke about working to end declawing of domestic and exotic cats in Los Angeles, his efforts being compromised by veterinarians in opposition; he credited this to the fact that “this is where they make a lot of money.” Again, clearly people need to reevaluate their ideas of a veterinarian’s salary.  Not only that, it is an issue of medical necessity, not money.  Then, Gene Baur mocked veterinarians when explaining that they only agreed to examine rescued farm animals after being offered some “green stuff” – the audience snickered, the idea being that if you truly loved animals you would help them for free.  This is not a new obstacle for veterinarians, who have to be realistic with clients regarding finances, but to have the animal rights activists claiming these medical services should be pro bono is only fueling the misunderstanding.  The veterinary community is made up of kind-hearted individuals knee-deep in debt, and whether they are vegan or like chicken is irrelevant.


Ultimately, these misconceptions and more are the foundation to the animal rights movement, as exemplified at the FARM Animal Rights National Conference.  What I ask is that if you are someone with an undefined opinion of where you stand on the issue, educate yourself.  Do not just listen to the first person ready to rant on the subject of animal agriculture.  The people in attendance believed that they somehow loved animals more than the people who worked with said animals every day, and that is hard to imagine.  Animal welfare and animal rights are essentially different, the first complementing a utilitarian view that the interests of all living beings should be considered, with the latter providing inalienable rights to animals.  Just because I eat meat and love working on a dairy farm does not mean I am going to aim for the next turtle I see in the road, or kick a cat just for the fun of it.  On the contrary, I will continue to work to educate others and be the best “agvocate” I can be.

An official report on the conference will be published by the Animal Agriculture Alliance soon!  As a member, you will have access to this and more; for now, though, read our monthly Newsletter to keep up with the Alliance and all things #ag!  As for me, this blog serves as my farewell, saying a sad to goodbye to DC as I pack up for one more year at the University of Vermont!  Thank you all, and as always, have a #dairygood day!

PEDv: A Matter of Biosecurity

Best management practice is to maintain your farm and herd in a way that reduces or eliminates introduction and transmittance of pathogens.  Biosecurity is this best practice, and it is something everyone who works with animals should be familiar with – in particular, those working with livestock.  Food safety is essential for farmers and ranchers growing food animals and the introduction of illness to your herd can be devastating.  Having a biosecurity plan is essential and is your insurance in the event that endemic illness does occur.

The best tool in developing a biosecurity plan is working with your veterinarian to know what viruses and pathogens are local to you, what your species of livestock is susceptible to, and modes of pathogen transference.  Being in the business of animal agriculture, several animals likely inhabit the same pen and housing, so the best place to start is providing and maintaining clean water and food sources.  After transporting animals, clean the trailer and other equipment – and if you are transporting animals into your facility, have quarantine procedures in place.  Not only that, but make sure you are diligent regarding the animals you are importing so you avoid introducing new pathogens to your herd.

This all sounds familiar, right?  But while you know to have a biosecurity plan, how exactly do you prepare for undercover agents?  An important facet to biosecurity is minimizing nonessential personnel and monitoring visitor access, expecting employees to be observant for sick animals and familiar with biosecurity practices in the event of illness.  Well, when you unknowingly hire an undercover animal rights activist, your livelihood is suddenly in jeopardy.  As seen in a recent undercover video, not only was the farm subjected to the humiliation of undercover footage, but as consequence they had someone on the premises who had no regard for biosecurity.

In the agricultural industry, Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv) is something we’ve seen in headlines for months, especially in the wake of this video’s publicity.  As hog farmers, PEDv has serious implications and has likely influenced biosecurity plans.  Because it’s transmitted by the fecal-oral route, you’re minimizing environmental contamination and actively identifying and separating infected sows and piglets.  With no registered vaccine or cure, fighting dehydration is about the best you can do, still losing almost 100% of piglets less than four weeks old if they contract the virus.  But there’s feedback.  Familiar to every livestock veterinarian, feedback is the process of feeding pregnant sows the diarrhea or intestines of infected/dying piglets to build her immunity so she can then pass on antibodies to her piglets through nursing.  And yet, this desperate effort to save lives is now called “cannibalism” by those same animal activists that pay for undercover video footage.  Not to mention that the undercover activist that betrayed one farm are likely on their way to the next target with PEDv-positive manure on their boots.

This is a sad reality, the Humane Society of the United States being just one of the animal rights groups who puts their own agenda over the very animals they are trying to “save.” These farmers fight back, though, going from one day to the next with greater experience and a better understanding of what they can do to produce healthy animals while also holding up an entire industry.  It is our sincere hope that the effects of PEDv can be minimized and reliable prevention can be identified, supporting protective efforts against undercover agents along the way.


**As an undergraduate student studying Animal Science, my work in the dairy industry and in animal agriculture makes this topic not only relevant to me, but something I incorporate into my education and life experiences every day!**

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The Docking Truth

Before I moved to D.C. a few weeks ago, my family had just finished lambing out our ewes for the 2014 show season. With each set of lambs come a flutter of excitement, potential, and the possibility of raising the “one”, which is very sought after in the stock show industry. At a few weeks of age the lambs receive a combination vaccine against overeating disease, tetanus and black leg which are all common diseases that effect ruminant livestock .Vaccine time also means time for castrating the rams and tail-docking.

Growing up surrounded by livestock, tail-docking has always been a familiar practice. In fact, it is such elementary husbandry that my 5-year-old niece could explain its purpose just as plain as I could. Simply put, if we were not to dock the lamb’s tail it would create a prime environment for flies to breed and cause an infestation of maggots and infection.Capture

Tail-docking is essential throughout the animal agriculture industry. As a part of my family’s agritourism business, we raise over 125 Percheron draft horses. Each work horse’s tail is docked at a young age to keep long tail hair from getting caught in the chains of harnesses.

In the dairy world, docked tails mean cleanliness. Without a tail to swish manure and dirt onto her udder or farm workers, farmers can ensure less chance of mastitis in a cows’ udder and greatly reduce the prevalence of contaminants entering the bulk tank.

Similarly, hogs’ tails are docked a day or two after birth. This is to prevent the piglets from biting the tails of fellow pen mates. This practice greatly reduces risk of infection and abscesses of the tail improving the welfare of the livestock.

No matter the species, agriculturists conduct the tail-docking process with the utmost precaution. Farmers, advised by licensed veterinarians, consider the livestock’s health and always have the animals well being in mind to assure quick healing.

We, as producers and those most intimately connected to agriculture, are all too familiar with ill-conceived legislation passed by those who do not understand the proper care of animals. Sadly, the same organizations are at it again.  Animal rights groups, those who have no real world experience in our industry, are pushing for a variety of legislation that would ban tail-docking.

Currently, legislation banning tail docking has been passed in California, Ohio, New Jersey and Rhode Island. In Vermont a bill is sitting in the Committee of Agriculture, while in Wisconsin and Colorado activist are striving to create a bill and introduce it during the next legislative session.

It is crazy how someone could justify labeling tail-docking as unnecessary yet, see no problem with a human cosmetic painful procedure like ear piercing. Now don’t get me wrong, I love earrings as much as the next girl but I understand it was not necessary.

We in agriculture must continue to build relationships with those who pass legislations related to our industry. Meet with your local, state and federal legislators, stay up to date with legislation through commodity groups and personal research; welcome those individuals on your farm. Remember that if we do not tell our story, someone else will and we’ll be forced to live with the consequences. And sadly, so will our animals.