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Livestock: Top 5 technologies

Most of the challenges that livestock farmers face are directly related to the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic and social. The future of livestock farming will depend on collaboration between farmers, researchers, innovators and technologists to help livestock production become more sustainable and meet consumer demands [1] [2].

Here are some examples of innovative practices being introduced [3].

1. Camera technology to improve pig welfare

The welfare of indoor-housed pigs has been the subject of much public attention due to concerns about limited opportunities for pigs to express natural behaviours. Pigs biting and injuring each other’s tails can be a serious welfare problem in indoor-housed pigs and research scientists are currently testing a 3D camera system for recognising early warning signs of a tail biting outbreak. The camera system captures image data on pig tail posture across a herd and, using an algorithm, predicts when biting is likely to occur so that the farmer can take action to prevent it [4]. The technology is not yet commercially available. Take a look at this video (video hosted on YouTube) to see how this technology works.

2. Probiotic supplements for improving broiler chickens’ gut health

Feeding antibiotics to chickens to promote growth was banned in the EU in 2006 [5] due to concerns about antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics led to quicker growth in chickens by increasing gut health and improving the efficiency of feed [6]. Much research has gone into finding alternatives to antibiotics which have the same effect. Probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria, have been shown to provide some growth and health benefits in research studies. Some biotech companies now sell probiotics designed for adding to chicken feed to promote intestinal health [7] [8].

3. Drone technology to precision-manage pastureland

Excessive urine and dung deposits in intensively grazed grasslands may deteriorate soils through nitrogen leaching [9] and lead to an increased risk of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution of watercourses in the same way as excessive application of fertilisers does. Initial research has shown that drones can record the effects of urine deposition by sheep in grasslands [10]. This allows scientists to identify high risk regions or polluting production routines in grazing flocks [11].

4. Sexed semen and in-egg sex recognition to reduce culling

Technological advances that enable semen to be sexed prior to insemination have made significant differences to both animal welfare and production efficiency in the dairy cattle industry [12]. Selecting semen for female offspring before a cow is artificially inseminated prevents the surplus of male calves in dairy systems. Male dairy calves have limited economic value to the farmer as they are not useful as beef cattle due to their breed, so may be culled [13]. So selecting for female calves increases the stock of new females for the milking herd while reducing economic losses and welfare concerns associated with culling.

Similarly, male offspring of laying hens are not suitable for meat production and are culled at 1 day old. New non-invasive spectroscopy technology (video hosted on YouTube) is emerging that enables the sex of developing embryos in hen’s eggs to be identified early on, which means only female eggs can be incubated and hatched [14].

5. Lab-grown meat and dairy proteins

Due to growing consumer interest in alternative diets, biotech companies are finding ways to grow animal muscle tissues and milk proteins in the laboratory [15]. Technology is still being developed and commercial scale production is not yet feasible. There are still many obstacles to overcome, including health and safety concerns, regulations, how to source starter animal cells without compromising animal welfare, how to grow animal cells without animal-derived nutrients and how to create a three dimensional structure with connective tissues and fat cells [16] [17]. In the future, this may offer an alternative to conventional meat and milk production from live animals, although the degree of consumer acceptance for such technologies is not yet clear.

You may like to watch these videos, showing lab-grown chicken (video hosted on YouTube), steak (video hosted on YouTube) and dairy (video hosted on company’s website) from different biotech companies.

References can be found under the ‘Downloads’ heading at the bottom of this Step.

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