By 2050, it is expected that the population on Earth will raise to more than 9 billion people according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. For this reason, food production is expected to increase by about 70%. The worldwide demand for meat and animal products itself is expected to increase by at least 40% in the next 10 years (FAO, 2009). With such an expected rise of the number of animals needed for food production, it is more and more difficult for farmers to assess the health and wellbeing of their animals individually. For these reasons, ensuring higher animal welfare standards while allowing farmers to maintain their productivity represents an important global challenge.
What is animal welfare?
Today, people are more and more concerned over animal welfare. But what exactly is animal welfare? Although it is a complex notion to define, animal welfare can be related to what an animal wants and what an animal needs (Dawkins, 2012). It is therefore not only related to the health of an animal, but it also takes into account animals’ emotional states. In 1965 were introduced the 5 freedoms, which are internationally accepted standards describing the basic rights that animals under human care should have. These are:
- The freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition;
- The freedom from thermal and physical discomfort;
- The freedom from pain, injury and disease;
- The freedom from fear and distress;
- The freedom to express normal behaviour.
Animal welfare has been shown to have a direct impact on human health. According to the World Health Organisation, a majority of the new diseases that have affected humans in the last decade emanated from animals or animal products (Dawkins, 2012). Research have shown that poor farm animal welfare results in significant negative human health consequences due to environmental degradation, but also to the use of non-therapeutic levels of antibiotics for growth promotion which have led to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. Animal welfare is therefore an important aspect to consider in our society if we are to feed the world in an ethical manner.
Precision Livestock Farming
It is often believed that increasing productivity while maintaining higher animal welfare standards is difficult and costly. However, consumer choices have helped markets to recognise the importance of animal welfare as an added value for businesses (Dalla Villa et al., 2014). As mentioned by the World Animal Protection, improving farm animal welfare has many benefits: Raising animals humanely can for example lead to reducing costs, creating employment, boost profits and keep local food supplies healthy, while reducing greenhouse gas emission. Several studies have indeed been able to show associations between meeting higher welfare standards and increased farm productivity, as well as meat quality and higher nutritional benefits. For example, pasture-reared beef contains between 25% and 50% less fat and has a more favourable ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids compared with intensively reared beef.
With that said, to meet the increasing demand for animal products while allowing sustainable livestock farming, there is a need to produce in a more efficient manner.
Precision Livestock Farming (or PLF) are technologies specifically designed to answer the issues related to farm animal welfare and farm management. PLF technologies allows farmers to automatically and continuously monitor the health and welfare of their animals at any given time (Berckmans 2014). These technologies also allow to monitor production, reproductivity as well as environmental impacts. To be able to detect any unusual changes in an animal’s behaviour gives the farmer the ability to intervene at an early stage and to target necessary treatment (Dawkins, 2003; Berckmans, 2014). The welfare of the animals is therefore improved, while allowing to increase benefits, product quality and efficiency.
There has been a lot of research around PLF, and these have led to the development of a number of patented inventions. In the 1970’s, we could already find technologies which would allow to measure the body temperature of farm animals therefore allowing early detection of a potential infection or disease by the means of audio alarms. Today, with the Internet of Things, fully automated PLF technologies have the advantage of being connected to computers, phones and tablets, and to collect a very large amount of data, allowing to monitor animals continuously.
Patenting activity related to animal monitoring devices and PLF technologies shows the existence of more than 400 patent families. Since the year 2000, where the notion of PLF has first been introduced, there has been an 85% increase in the number of patent families, with the highest number of published patents observed between 2015 and 2018. This is a good indicator of the increased interest in these technologies.
Looking at worldwide distribution, the country with the highest number of patents in this sector is the United States with more than 200 patent families. Other countries worth highlighting in this particular field are China, Australia and Canada. Europe also holds a considerable number of patents. The first PLF conference was held in Europe in 2003, and 9 other PLF-related conferences have been held since. From 2013 to 2017, the EU-PLF project, led by Dr Berckmans from the University of Leuven, has helped in demonstrating the huge potential of these technologies, which are now blooming.
The top companies in terms of patented technologies are Delaval Holding, followed by Hunan Tech, Fujistu, Sony and Agifolink. The main categories of animals to which these technologies apply, are ruminants, followed by pigs, poultry and fish. Some of the technologies can also apply for different types of animals. In terms of parameters and types of device, we notice that sensors, tags and the use of cameras are currently the most popular. Applications of these are mainly focused on aspects linked to productivity such as breeding, feeding, growth or health, followed by other aspects such as animal behaviour or identification. A lower number of patented technologies are related to monitoring greenhouse emissions.
Some examples of IP-backed PLF technologies
SoundTalks – Pig Respiratory Distress Package (website)
Soundtalks has developed a pig respiratory distress passage using a hardware platform which allows to process the sounds coming from pigs in real-time and to make environmental measures in harsh conditions. The use of microphones coupled with the hardware platform allows monitoring the respiratory health in pigs in less than 5 minutes.
Afimilk – Silent Herdsman Neck Collar (website)
- view relevant patent here
Silent Herdsman is a cow monitoring system which was developed with the support of the Scottish Government. This neck-mounted device detects oestrus and health issues based on collected data related to a cow’s activity, rumination and eating patterns. Data is transmitted wirelessly from the collar via a base station to a central computer on the farm which issues alerts when changes indicating oestrus or illness are detected. Silent Herdsman has been acquired by Afimilk Limited in 2016, a global provider of dairy farm management solutions and which is currently based in hundreds of dairy farms throughout Europe.
DeLaval – Body condition scoring or BCS (website)
- view relevant patent here
Delaval Holding have patented a technology which allows to determine the body condition score of an animal with the help of three-dimensional camera systems which are directed towards the animal. An image processing device connected to the camera system allows to form a three-dimensional surface representation of a portion of the animal. Statistical analysis then allows to determine the Body condition Score. This technology is designed to ensure that cows have healthy body fat reserves, therefore promoting milk production, reproductive efficiency and reducing mortality while reducing labour costs.
With an increased number of patented technologies related to PLF, and the existence of more than 1000 scientific publications on the subject, the interest for these technologies is undoubted. There are different types of technologies which can be developed and used to monitor different health parameters of a large variety of animals. Researchers are currently working on developing devices which would allow to monitor animal welfare more objectively, using physiological responses associated with behaviour. The future of PLF is therefore promising, as it offers a wide range of possibilities for further research and innovation. However, in order to implement these technologies on farm, there is a need to encourage SMEs to develop and patent new devices. Remember – there are more than 65 billion animals raised for food production, meaning the market potential is huge!
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Berckmans D., 2014. ‘Precision livestock farming technologies for welfare management in intensive livestock systems.’ Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz., 2014, 33 (1), 189-196.
Dalla Villa P., 2014. ‘Drivers for animal welfare policies in Europe’. Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz., 2014, 33 (1), 39-46
Dawkins M., 2003. ‘Behaviour as a tool in the assessment of animal welfare’. Zoology 106 (2003): 383-387
Dawkins M., 2012. ‘Why Animals Matter.’ Oxford University Press
Dawkins M., 2016. ‘Animal welfare and efficient farming: is conflict inevitable?’ Animal Production Science Review. http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/AN15383.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (2009). – ‘How to feed the world in 2050’. FAO, Rome. Available at: www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/ docs/expert_paper/How_to_Feed_the_World_in_2050.pdf (accessed on 31 October 2013).
World Animal Protection (link): https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/our-work/animals-farming-supporting-70-billion-animals/farm-animal-welfare