Git Along Little Dogies, and Onto the Wireless Network

Episode ID S2E09
August 3, 2023

In confined settings of chickens, hogs and dairy cows, producers have widely adopted technology that monitors animal health and improves efficiency. But with cattle scattered on the range, beef operations are a different breed. That could change with private wireless networks. In this episode of All Day Digital, former rancher and current graduate research student Caleb Hurst digs into precision livestock farming.


Caleb Hurst: Labor is a major concern in the agricultural industries as well as just utilizing land and water resources as well. I think that precision agriculture can bring in some opportunities for ranchers to utilize those scarce resources well.

Jeff Johnston: That was Caleb Hurst, a former ranch manger and current graduate student at Colorado State University’s animal breeding and genetics program about the opportunities precision livestock farming offers. 

Hi, I’m Jeff Johnston and welcome to the All Day Digital podcast where we talk to industry executives and thought leaders to get their perspective on a wide range of factors shaping the communications industry. This podcast is brought to you by CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange group.

Precision livestock farming has yet to take off in the beef cattle industry despite the fact that it can positively impact ranching operations. Some of the challenges include the upfront costs and lack of awareness regarding the applications and new, lower cost connectivity options that can help enable these applications.

Caleb’s experience managing ranches and his extensive knowledge of precision livestock farming applications makes him an ideal guest to have on the show. 

So, without any further ado, pitter patter let’s see what Caleb has to say. 

Johnston: Caleb Hurst, welcome to the podcast. It is a pleasure to have you here today.

Hurst:  Thanks for having me.

Johnston:  Excellent. Look, I'm really excited to chat with you today about precision livestock farming. It's a pretty fascinating area of agriculture and you as-- your time on the ranch and your time as a researcher, I think really positions you well to help us understand some of the more salient points of precision livestock farming. Maybe you can just give us a high-level overview of what really is precision livestock farming.

Hurst: Precision livestock farming is the use of technologies and data to make precise decisions, whether that be systematic wide for your operation or more on an individual animal level to make decisions with that certain animal on health and other related efficiencies.

Johnston:  Health makes a lot of sense. Having healthy animals would presumably reduce your input costs and increase your output yield, but is that really the primary focus that ranchers look to when they deploy these applications?

Hurst: Sure. Optimizing health is one of two. The other one would be allocation of resources. Farmers and ranchers utilize precision agriculture technologies to allocate resources that are generally scarce, better. They help producers make more sustainable business decisions as well as raise better, healthier livestock.

Johnston: When you say scarce resources, it makes me think of labor because I saw the most recent report out of the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, was that there's 1.6 openings or job openings for every one person looking for a job. Obviously, the labor market is extremely tight. Are these applications really addressing that particular shortage of resources?

Hurst: Certainly. Labor is a major concern in the agricultural industries as well as just utilizing land and water resources as well. I think that precision agriculture can bring in some opportunities for ranchers to utilize those scarce resources well.

Johnston: That makes sense. Maybe we can get into some of the specifics of these applications. You can help listeners understand just maybe a couple, two, whatever, top three types of precision livestock applications that are most prevalent out there.

Hurst: Sure. It depends on the specific species that you're in. For dairy, they utilize feed intake units, which feed intake units are a bunk system that as the dairy cow approaches the bunk, it reads an ear tag specific to that animal.

They have a scale in that bunk system that tells you exactly how much that animal is eating for that time that it's at the bunk based on weight. They're able to calculate some feed efficiencies on that utilizing less feed, which is a scarce resource again, and producing more milk. 

They also have milk machines that automatically weigh the milk from the animal that it produces per milking and puts that into a data system automatically. They also have sensors on those milk machines that can help detect early signs of mastitis which is a major issue within the dairy industry.

In the pork industry, there's some real issues with lameness in sows. They actually have sensors on the floors now that can detect movements of those specific sows and know through correlations if those sows are becoming lame earlier or later. 

On the poultry side of things, they're utilizing some cloud-based strategies to implement and store data for themselves. They're utilizing those databases to automatically order feed when a feed bin's getting low.

I'm most comfortable talking about the beef industry. That's where my experience is. There's two different sectors in the beef industry. There's a cow-calf sector, which is as you could guess is the cow itself that is the producer of baby calves, or the beginning of the beef process. Then those calves from those cows will eventually enter into a more feedlot system. That's the other part of it.

There's different challenges for both industries. There's land usage and very wide open spaces in one industry, and the other one's a bit more confined. In the cow-calf sector, they're using a lot of drones. They're using virtual fencing. On the drone side, they're utilizing drones to check cows that are in pastures that are square miles wide. They are able to better know where those cattle are, and they're better able to utilize the land that those cattle are on by knowing where those cattle are grazing for that day.

You can also-- the drones themselves have heat detection or heat detection option on some drones that you can find renegade cattle or lost cattle that aren't necessarily with the herd. In terms of knowing where your animals are located are really helpful within that industry. There's also producers that are using drones in their calving pastures. Calving is a stressful time for both the mother and the baby. The least disturbance possible is the best. Driving a pickup out there or a horse or a four-wheeler isn't necessarily like the best option for checking cows while they're having calves. You can fly a drone over them and just check to see if everything's going okay, and if you need to then make a decision to go into the field yourselves, you have a more educated answer on if you can go in or not, if she's going to be able to have that calf by herself.

Then on the beef side, it's similar to the dairy industry there, the feedlot side is similar to the dairy industry in that they're utilizing a lot of feed intake units as we described and water intake units as well. 

Johnston: Yes, there's a lot going on. Those are a lot of really cool applications. The one you talked about with the pork mobility application. Do they actually have a sensor on the animal, and then they've got sensors under the floor, and then as the animal moves around, if there's anything irregular, that's how they capture it all?

Hurst: Yes. Porcine creatures have a specific gait, so you're able to tell via an ear tag, just like with the feed intake units in cattle, they also have an ear tag in pork animals as well that is able to read that specific animal and then determine whether or not that animal is moving properly.

Johnston: Wow, just their gait. Actually, it's not just the amount of walking, it's how they walk. Oh, that's wild. [laughs] That's pretty cool. These all sound great and I can see the efficiencies and the benefits to ranchers for deploying these applications. To me, it seems like a no-brainer, but you're certainly the expert, I'm not. What is the adoption rate of these types of applications in ranching?

Hurst: Published journal studies from several years ago have stated that about 70% of dairies are utilizing some sort of precision technology and that would probably be less in the cattle industry or in the cow-calf industry for sure and I think that's in part due to a few factors. One, dairies are more in a confined area of space. Then two, at least here in the US, dairies are quite a bit larger per operation than your typical cow-calf production unit.

55% of dairy cows come from a dairy that are a thousand or more cows per that operation. In the beef cow-calf area, it's 44. There's quite a bit more economies of scale for dairy producers rather than cow-calf producers to implement these decisions and these technologies. That being said within the beef industry, the feed lots are starting to put some of these technologies to use, whether it be the feed intake units or the water intake units. That's due to the fact that they also are large in comparison to cow-calf. The feedlots themselves are large, but they also are in a confined space at that point and not just ranging the open range.

Johnston:  There was something to offer up as I think about the cow-calf industry or segment of the market. I'm not sure how you exactly say it, but it would seem to me that some of the applications that are being deployed or that could be deployed for that part of the market could be limited because of broadband connectivity.

I don't know all the applications that are out there, but to the extent that there are applications that cannot be deployed unless you've got some type of a wireless broadband network covering the pasture, there are some really interesting developments over the last few years, thanks to the FCC. I don't have to get into all the specifics, but essentially they democratized owning and operating carrier-grade wireless networks.

When I say carrier-grade, I'm talking about the networks that we use on T-Mobile or Verizon, or AT&T. This is equipment that's built to certain specifications by tier 1 manufacturers. These decisions have democratized that. For example, a rancher could partner with a local telephone company and pretty cost-effectively deploy wireless broadband connectivity over their pasture. Honestly, three-- well, four, five years ago, this simply wasn't possible. You'd have to beg Verizon or beg AT&T to do it. Now, they don't need to do that. They can actually do that on their own.

Something to be aware of, so people who are listening to this and thinking about limitations on these applications in that cow-calf area, just know that there are options out there. Namely, this block of spectrums called CBRS. It's this whole CBRS initiative that will enable these types of applications to be deployed assuming they need broadband connectivity. Just thought I'd throw it out there. That's my contribution.

Hurst: Yes, that's awesome. Thanks. I didn't know that.

Johnston: Let's talk a little bit about the technical requirements on the part of ranchers to be able to deploy and manage these applications because these do sound somewhat sophisticated, but maybe I'm not thinking about it the right way. Maybe just to talk about a lift, if you will. This is like a heavy lift for a rancher to deploy these types of applications.

Hurst: Yes. I think they are getting cheaper. To put a feed intake unit in a dairy or a feedlot is quite expensive. I think also on the virtual fencing side, on the cow-calf operations, there's some pros and cons. Around the virtual fencing, it's based off of a rotational grazing opportunity. Cows aren't grazing one specific part of the field at a certain time. You can move them around and utilize the entire land parcel.

Priory, the option was to build a fence and put the parcel into sections, and then move those cattle. Well, with virtual fencing, you're able to move those cattle from your phone because they wear a collar, and it's essentially a geofence. They wear a collar, and when that cow gets closer to the geofence, there's a signal. If it gets any closer, there's a small shock that sends them back into where they're supposed to be.

You are able to move those geo-fences wherever you want your cattle to graze. There is a subscription cost to these companies' products, as well as you have to rent the collar. There are some costs to virtual fencing as opposed to the conventional fence line grazing as well. I think that may be the biggest factor when it comes to slow adoption within the cow-calf sector.

I think another thing to consider is data. It's one thing to generate data, it's another to put it to use. In the beef industry, there's more familiarity with technology in the seed stock section of the industry as well as the feedlot section. Seed stock producers are those that are providing genetics to the rest of the industry, bull semen to put it plainly. They sell genetics down to the rest of the cow-calf sector that eventually sells their calves to the feedlot. Seed stock producers use a lot of technology in their ability to select in mating decisions and precise accurate data because they're trying to sell bulls.

If you're a cow-calf operator, your biggest concern is raising beef. They may have feed intake data from grazing, but they're not as necessarily concerned about utilizing the grazing data. I'm studying cattle genetics in my graduate program and have on-ranch experience. From my perspective, I'd like to see ranchers utilizing more data and more feed intake units just to have more data to send higher up the chain to those seed stock producers.

Johnston:  Yes, makes sense. I certainly learned a lot today. You clearly know your stuff, Caleb, so thank you for all of that. Hey, look, before we wrap it up, I always like to give my guests an opportunity to say something or talk about something that I didn't ask, something you think is really important. Stage is yours. Any closing thoughts?

Hurst:  There is one cool technology that I've come across in my graduate work. It revolves around this sustainability or greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly to the feed intake units using a bunk system, there's a machine now that will bait cattle or sheep, whatever species of animal produces methane, into this machine headstall. They bait them using alfalfa pellets because it's a treat for them. It's like a Pavlov's dog situation where a bell will go off, and they'll go and they'll have a treat.

While they're having that treat and eating that treat, that machine is actually collecting data on how much methane production that animal is emitting at that time. So we're able to then calculate how many grams per day of methane that animal is producing and we can tweak diets to be able to produce less methane. Or we can also do some genetic studies as well to-- if there's a certain breed type or if there's a certain sire in the industry that doesn't produce as much methane, we could then breed for a reduction in methane and greenhouse gas emissions.

Johnston: That is cool. Yes. That's really neat. Sustainability is a big theme, right? Rightfully so. It's good to see that there's applications that are supporting that. That's good stuff. Caleb, thank you so much for being with us here today. It was an absolute pleasure having you on.

Hurst: Yes, thanks, Jeff, for having me.

Johnston: A special thanks goes out to Caleb for joining us on the podcast today. From a livestock perspective I get why dairy farms have adopted new technologies at a faster rate compared to beef ranchers. The simple fact that dairy cows are in a confined location where their movement is tightly managed versus beef cows who are roaming large pastures speaks for itself. Despite these challenges I think it’s important for ranchers to explore using private wireless networks in their operations as I think they’d be surprised at how relatively low cost these networks are to build. And as Caleb mentioned, there is big upside for them if they lean into these applications, and I think private wireless networks could play a meaningful role in digitizing their operations. 

Hey thank for joining me today and watch out for the next episode of the All Day Digital podcast. 

Disclaimer: The information provided in this podcast is not intended to be investment, tax, or legal advice and should not be relied upon by listeners for such purposes. The information contained in this podcast has been compiled from what CoBank regards as reliable sources. However, CoBank does not make any representation or warranty regarding the content, and disclaims any responsibility for the information, materials, third-party opinions, and data included in this podcast. In no event will CoBank be liable for any decision made or actions taken by any person or persons relying on the information contained in this podcast.

Where to Listen

Anchor Apple Podcasts Spotify RSS