All is peaceful and quiet in Ignatz Heeremann’s cowshed. The new open building boasts both optimal temperature and humidity, with a sensor above the slatted floors permanently monitoring methane and ammonia levels. The electric feed robot makes its rounds silently, pushing up the grass silage, which has been checked for protein content, pH and other nutritional parameters by photoelectric sensors directly at the silage clamp.
A total of eight milking robots, driven by renewable energy, carry out their job according to pre-programmed input. The milk flows abundantly – so does the data. It flows into the control centre, where two employees per shift check the production of the 400-strong dairy herd both meticulously and conveniently via several screens. The health of the animals is also individually monitored: Body temperature, weight, various blood and hormone values as well as the acid composition in the rumen are just a few of the parameters which are transmitted in real time to a database and graphically processed in a sophisticated way using clever software.
The future of modern dairy farming?
Welcome to the ‘brave new world of cattle sheds’. Is this what the future of modern dairy farming looks like? Who knows exactly, but in any case the development is proceeding at a fast pace; because the situation described in the fictitious barn by the fictitious farmer Heeremann is already, at least in part, already common practice in many barns. So the question is no longer whether digitalisation will take place in livestock farming and broader agriculture, but rather how and at what pace it will take place.
A study published in spring 2020, jointly commissioned by the Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (Bitkom), the German Farmers’ Association and the German rural development agency Rentenbank, demonstrates just how far German agriculture has actually come in terms of digitalisation.
Some 500 German farmers took part in the survey, which revealed that more than eight out of 10 farms already use digital technologies and another 10% are planning to use them in the future. In the study, which was conducted shortly before the Corona pandemic, 81% of the farmers surveyed confirmed that digitalisation primarily increases their production efficiency. Some 79% named physical relief as another important advantage, and more than one in two (57%) also emphasised a better work-life balance.
And most farmers strongly believe that the environment and animals can benefit from digitalisation: 93% firmly believe that digital technologies can help save on the use of fertilisers, pesticides and other resources. They facilitate a more environmentally friendly production process – a robot does automated hoeing, instead of spraying with crop protection chemicals. Given this assessment, it is not surprising that seven out of 10 farmers stress that digitalisation is in principle a great opportunity for more sustainable agriculture.
für das Smartphone oder Tablet
GPS-guided agricultural machines are popular: They are now used by many farmers. But it’s not just in the field – there is a lot of digitally controlled movement in the barn as well. Intelligent feeding systems are already in use on almost every second livestock producer. Some 40% of all farmers now work with agricultural apps on their smartphone or tablet, and 40% also use farm or herd management systems.
Digitisation in animal husbandry
It is obvious that all of these technologies have an impact on the work of veterinarians. “These are developments of our time, there is no stopping them,” says vet Dr. Siegfried Moder. “Although by no means everything per se has to be approved of and digitalisation alone does not bring any advantages in animal husbandry, a professional evaluation of the data obtained by sensors and cameras offers great opportunities for prophylaxis and thus ultimately also for animal health.
Thus Moder, President of the Bundesverbandes Praktizierender Tierärzte e. V. (bpt), (Federal Association of General Practitioners of Veterinary Medicine), in which around 9,000 veterinarians are organised, is an avowed supporter of digitalisation. For the 63-year-old it is therefore a matter of course to work on farms with his laptop under his arm. “But as I said before, in the end it always depends on what they do with the data they obtain from the digital applications in the end, and what measures they derive from them.”
Moder gives examples: “In this way you can see in good time whether your calves are healthy or whether they are about to fall ill by measuring the temperature on the surface of the suction cup. Or the farmer can make use of ‘intelligent ear tags’, which on the one hand allow a quick location of the animals, but on the other hand also indicate whether a cow is in heat or has an impending udder disease”.
These new approaches to individual monitoring of animals in a large herd, Moder continues, offer completely new options and qualities in veterinary care and diagnostics. Provided, however, that the “master of the data”, the farmer, that is, also freely communicates this data to the veterinarians. his data flow has suffered somewhat in recent years for various reasons.
Progressive telemedicine and digitalisation could therefore help to bring vets and farmers closer together in the interests of animal health. “What matters is the productive lifetime of the cows, which unfortunately is no longer than three lactations on average,” says dairy expert Dr Moder, who predicts a move away from too one-sided a focus on performance to facilitate greater longevity.
And with regard to focus… cow goggles developed at the Agricultural Education Centre (LBZ) Echem definitely offer a change of perspective. Whoever straps this futuristic-looking device in front of their eyes can see everything from the perspective of a cow: Two-coloured, extremely contrasting, with a field of view of 330 degrees, of which however only a relatively narrow segment is sharp, on top of that, cows have a much slower adaptability of the iris. To simulate all this optically, highly complex software is required, as project manager Benito Weise reveals.
When he stalks around between the cows in the EBZ’s barn, it may look a little silly, but these goggles give every owner important insights into why the supposedly ‘stupid cow’ is not stupid at all.
Anyone who looks through these goggles will gain a deeper understanding of the animal.
“Anyone who looks through these goggles will gain a deeper understanding of the cow, and develop a new empathy for the animal,” says Mr Weise, who is introducing the goggles to both agricultural trainees in Lower Saxony and hoof trimmers. It is not only the cows’ different visual perception that is important; the background noise in the barn also plays an outstanding role for their well-being, which is why Echem is also working on the development of a ‘cow ear’. “It is precisely those frequencies that we humans simply do not perceive at all, that cows can experience as highly disturbing.”
Digital herd management
Reinhold Koch, a trainer who is jointly responsible for management of the 150 cows at the LBZ, is also fundamentally open to technical innovations. This is mainly due to the fact that ‘Smart Dairy’ is firmly anchored in his daily work –apart from that, the robot is never in a bad mood.
Dairy cows with sensors and motion detectors for oestrus determination on the collar.
Self-propelled scraper robot Lely Discovery pushes cow dung in front of it.
Sitting in front of several screens, Mr Koch explains how he handles combined oestrus and feeding programmes. “If the sensor on the collar reports falling jaw activity, we find out about it quickly and can take action,” he says. Topics like digitally catalogued genomic breeding value estimation, electrical conductivity measurement of milk or ad hoc ketone measurement, show how diverse the digital fields of application already are.
All these techniques provide a lot of data that was previously not easily and quickly available to dairy farmers. “Data is important, but it is not everything,” says the 57-year-old. “It cannot replace the trained eye of the farmer.” Mr Koch’s trainee Kristina Dralle, who wants to take over her family’s dairy farm in the Gifhorn district of Germany together with her brother in a few years’ time, does not contradict her boss at this point, but emphasises unequivocally that “digitalisation is quite simply necessary.”