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How Crop and Animal Sensors are Making Farming Smarter

How Crop and Animal Sensors are Making Farming Smarter

By Richard Gray

Installing wireless sensors among crops and attaching 'smart' ear tags to livestock could help farmers produce more food with less impact on the environment.

The bounty of food we can find on supermarket shelves across Europe is the result of knowledge accumulated over thousands of years by generations of farmers.

But with the global human population likely to increase by 2.2 billion over the next 30 years to reach 9.8 billion, there will be a lot more mouths to feed. At the same time, farmers face growing this extra food while using less water, land, fertiliser and pesticides.

Agriculture alone is responsible for slightly more than 10% of greenhouse gas emissions and 44% of water use in Europe while pesticide use has a major impact on pollinators and the wider ecosystem.

To meet these challenges, farmers across Europe have been teaming up with researchers and engineers to develop new technologies they hope will usher in an era of 'precision farming." With networks of sensors installed in fields or attached to animals, they can gather real-time data about the health of their crops and herds, allowing them to make better decisions about how to manage them.

"We need to solve the environmental footprint of the agricultural system by doing more with the same resources or even with less," said Francois Lienard, communications manager for the Internet of Food and Farm 2020 (IoF2020) project. The project has been coordinating a series of experiments where sensors, farm machinery and automated equipment are linked together to form an agricultural 'internet of things."

Dairy cows

In one example, 2,200 dairy cows across six farms in Denmark, Germany, Latvia and Lithuania have been fitted with ear tags with a wireless radio frequency identification antenna to identify each animal when they visit a smart robotic feeder. The feeder can detect when the cow sticks its head into the feeder and records the time each cow visits, along with exactly what dose of mineral feed supplements they were given.

The diet of dairy cows before they give birth and for 100 days after calving is particularly important for keeping them healthy and ensuring the quality of the milk they produce, which is where mineral supplements can help.

Poor health in dairy cows can impact their fertility and so reduce the number of animals able to produce milk as well as impact the quality of the milk itself.

Preliminary results, which have yet to be published, show that milk yield in herds using smart ear tags and feeders increased by 1% but also improved milk quality by 20%. At the same time, the number of diseased animals decreased by 6% compared to a herd without the tags and the number of cows culled due to health problems was 24% lower.

Controlling the minerals eaten by cows can also reduce the amount of ammonia and phosphate shed in their manure, which can impact the quality of water that runs off fields.

Being able to monitor a cow's visits to a feeder allows farmers to spot any animals that are not eating enough. The feeder is connected to a cloud-based system that can then automatically tailor the amount of supplements and feed each animal gets. It also provides further information about the cows' behaviour and health by looking at changes in their activity. Some of the project partners at Strathclyde University, UK, and the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland are using collar-mounted accelometers and step-counters along with artificial intelligence to further monitor animal health from their movements and look for early signs of illness such as lameness in individual cows.

"We know that the activity level of a dairy cow increases substantially during heat (while in estrus), whereas decreased activity is caused by illness," said Henning Lyngsø Foged, chief executive of the Organe Institute, an agricultural research consultancy in Skødstrup, Denmark, and coordinator of a precision mineral supplementation experiment under IoF2020.

Data gathered from collar-mounted accelerometers can indicate early signs of illness, such as lameness, in individual cows. Image credit—Ivan Andonovic.

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