Dr Andy Hentzen.

It may be a weighty term, but artificial intelligence (AI) will play a significant role in the intensive beef cattle industry in future. This is according to Dr Andy Hentzen, senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria (UP) Faculty of Veterinary Science’s Department of Production Animal Studies, and clinical manager of the Production Animal Clinic at Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital.

It all starts with the electronic ear tag, he says, and initially it does not matter which ear tag is used, whether high or low frequency. However, the high-frequency tag presents many advantages, the most of important of which is that the scanner can detect the frequency from the ear tag over a greater distance.

This means that animals do not have to be pushed through a crush one by one in order to obtain data from the tag. A group of animals can enter the crush together and the scanner will pick up each ear tag and forward the data to the computer software. “This not only reduces the hours worked, but also reduces stress in the animals. And this is just the beginning,” says Dr Hentzen.

Data that spans an entire lifetime

Dr Hentzen sketches the following scenario to illustrate his point: Every animal entering the feedlot is equipped with a high-frequency ear tag attached at birth. The animal’s data has been recorded since birth, which means that its entire breeding and medical history is known to the feedlot operator.

One advantage of the high-frequency ear tag is that a scanner can detect the ear tag’s frequency over a greater distance.

While in the feedlot, the animal’s history is kept up to date, including the type and amount of feed the animal receives, its average daily weight gain, and its medical treatments. The information captured is very accurate and the human factor is eliminated.

Better information means better decisions, which ultimately relates to feedlot profitability. With the correct treatment date captured, the scanning of marketable animals can identify those animals that have not yet gone through their withdrawal period.

“Suppose an animal arrives at the feedlot hospital for treatment. The type of treatment and medication is immediately captured on its electronic record and the software registers the withdrawal period of the specific medicine.

“If that animal accidentally ends up in a group being loaded for the abattoir, the overhead sensors will register its ear tag and bring the entire loading process to a halt, until a manager removes the animal in question from the group and records the corrective action on the system.”

Accurate traceability

This technology opens the door to sustainable exports, as it enables accurate traceability and eliminates risk, he continues. It will eventually become non-negotiable as alternative and export markets continue to expand.

Another key advantage of AI-systems is that it can successfully prevent disease outbreaks, such as foot-and-mouth disease and its enormous international implications, in the feedlot by allowing only traceable calves to be purchased.

“If an animal with such a disease is detected in the feedlot, the system can immediately point out exactly where the animal in question came from, and the necessary measures can be implemented to control the disease.”

With the high-frequency ear tag, a group of animals can enter the crush together and the scanner will be able to detect each ear tag.

The system will be able to indicate when and on which truck the animal arrived, which other animals were on that truck, the animals it came into contact with, from which farm it came, and at which auction it was purchased.

“The international guideline stipulates that we have 48 hours in which to prove where such an animal came from. However, with the new technology, and especially the high-frequency ear tags, it can be done in 30 seconds.”

Enhanced biosecurity

This new technology, he says, will likely also eliminate situations such as the recent suspension of all auctions due to foot-and-mouth disease, as clear evidence can be provided to show that animals that do not come from high-risk areas do not pose a threat.

This means that they can be marketed, and the entire meat value chain can remain active despite possible outbreaks in isolated areas, all at a low risk to the buyer.

Curbing livestock theft

If electronic ear tags become the norm, it will become more difficult to sell stolen livestock at auctions.

“If this technology is implemented at farm level, it will, in my opinion, have a sizeable impact on combating livestock theft,” says Dr Hentzen. “If auction kraals make the wearing of ear tags compulsory, it will be considerably more difficult for livestock thieves to get rid of stolen livestock.”

Possible compensation benefits

Producers often complain that top-quality animals do not fetch the necessary premium they deserve. Implementing traceability from farm as well as parentage level will set the scene for a whole new approach to compensation.

“This new technology will soon identify producers whose cattle are constantly performing better in the feedlot. It can also extend beyond the feedlot to include meat quality. The feedlot operator can then construct a customer base to which he is prepared to pay a premium for a proven superior product, from a health, genetic and meat perspective.”

Economic aspects

The cost of implementing such a system remains a factor, says Dr Hentzen, but fortunately technology is becoming cheaper all the time. Furthermore, the ear tags can be used repeatedly, which further reduces the cost.

“However, if you weigh the benefits against the costs, the costs should not be a determining factor. For an environment that is becoming increasingly export-oriented, coupled with a high notifiable disease risk such as seen in the South African red meat industry, this technology is non-negotiable.

“It is a prerequisite for the international environment we cater to. We’ll soon reach a point where someone in Germany, for example, orders a steak and information such as the specific Free State farm on which the cut was produced, the animal’s antibiotic-free status, and even how many days it spent in the feedlot, will be readily available.”

The export market is vital for bringing about real growth in meat sales in the current challenging economic environment. “Whether it is marketed domestically or abroad, we will have to guarantee that the meat is healthy and safe and does not pose any risks.”

Utilisation in feedlots

Most of the country’s large feedlots have already embraced the technology and are going from strength to strength. “The advantage is that producers who want to utilise this technology can negotiate delivery agreements with these feedlots, based on their proven record of delivering excellent cattle in optimal production and health.

“This is where the issue of a premium for proven, sustained quality comes into play,” says Dr Hentzen. “The animal in question’s information, gathered from the day it was born, is uploaded to the feedlot’s system on the first day of its arrival at the feedlot in order to maintain the links of traceability.”

The feedback the feedlot provides to producers in respect of the performance of their cattle in the kraal, serves as an additional selection criterion – performance can now be traced to the parents of an individual animal. This information is similar to that of a progeny test centre, he believes.

The feedlot is currently at the centre of the value chain when it comes to adopting this new technology. It offers great benefits in terms of opening international markets and meat quality improvement, but can also serve as an incentive to producers who are continuously striving to improve their products. – Izak Hofmeyr, Stockfarm

For more information, phone Dr Andy Hentzen on 082 372 0307.