Contrary to some conventional wisdom, farmers have more digital equipment on average than the rest of the French population. Thus, 67% of them have a desktop computer, 60% a laptop, 42% a tablet and 71% a smartphone.
The livestock sector is also the most equipped of all sectors of agricultural production: sensors, herd management software, robots for milking, feeding or cleaning, etc. Fixed cameras for monitoring animals are, for example, the most common equipment on farms.
What are we supposed to think about this when we know the current breeding controversy?
Will digital technologies become the leverage for the needed agro-ecological transition of livestock systems, allowing for more precise and personalized monitoring, limiting or even eliminating treatment procedures?
Or are they, on the contrary, incompatible with the agroecological transition because they are expensive, contribute to global warming and replace human skills (supervision, management)?
Therefore, the idea of a possible synergy between digital technologies and agroecology is not unanimous, including in the scientific community.
From clone breeding to custom breeding
Digital advocates in the service of the agroecological transition in livestock and agriculture in general advocate the idea that technology now makes it possible to take advantage of the diversity of individuals in a herd and no longer suffer from it.
For several years, the ultimate model that some researchers looked at was a herd of clones, all identical individuals. This was to maximize performance while making driving easier.
Nowadays it is generally accepted that variety is an advantage if you know how to master it.
Thanks to the evolution of knowledge and digital tools, it becomes possible to track biological processes in real time for each individual (for certain species), rather than systematically for the entire group. This is the concept of “individual” breeding.
Agriculture in the Age of Big Data
It should be remembered that agroecology is based on the mobilization of natural biological mechanisms (environmental processes) in order to prevent unwanted investments, in particular those whose production requires non-renewable resources, such as hormones or fertilizers, synthesis or drugs. including antibiotics.
For example, the use of legumes in pastures (clover, alfalfa, etc.) saves chemical fertilizers due to their ability to capture atmospheric nitrogen. Plants with medicinal properties in the range of outdoor poultry contribute to the health of animals, etc.
To apply these principles, digital technologies allow the production of data in very large quantities (“big data”), linked to each other in a systems approach. This process of obtaining a large amount of data is called high-throughput phenotyping.
This data is then processed by bioinformaticians, statisticians or artificial intelligence specialists whose goal is to identify the relationships between them.
For example, researchers have shown that pigs have an extensive vocal repertoire, with some sounds associated with positive emotions and others with negative ones. This can be used to monitor farm animals.
However, the massive use of digital technologies is not without consequences from an environmental point of view: the infrastructures on which it depends are indeed very greedy in resources, especially in rare earth elements.
Thus, current estimates predict the depletion of certain resources needed for digital technologies in less than 20 years.
Avoid the risk that the profession will lose its content
For the breeder, the problem with digital breeding is the added value created by the information available to him.
Thus, it is very important to identify those that are useful for managing your breeding system in order to better understand the possible use of digital technologies and not to overwhelm breeders with information. This way they can keep their work meaningful and see that their skills are valued.
Digital technologies then allow breeders to make informed decisions based on relevant data without letting robots decide for them.
The relationship between man and animal is indeed the basis of tribal activity, and affectivity is an integral part of it, with ideas of pleasure or, conversely, pain at work. The use of digital technologies should not exclude these aspects that are at the heart of the breeder’s profession.
The risk of digital is that its activities will lose content and meaning, and the tasks of observing animals will be transferred to the control of surveillance equipment. This can be stressful (too many trips, breakdowns, malfunctions) and requires new skills.
As a consequence, the possibility of introducing new technologies in animal husbandry is also a source of potential motivation for young people and a means of encouraging professions.
What is the economic benefit in the long run?
Sometimes the high cost of these technologies is the main argument against their use, especially in small structures.
In order for breeders to integrate them into their system, it is necessary that they also allow savings, and that the income in the end is at least equal, and if possible higher, than in the previous situation (with easier work).
The savings opportunities made possible by these new technologies are mainly related to food and medicines.
For pig feed, for example, the potential savings are estimated at 8% in production costs, 25% in nitrogen and phosphorus consumption, 40% in nitrogen emissions, and 6% in greenhouse gas emissions if consumption is adjusted to individual needs. every animal.
For medicines, the main challenge is to reduce the use of antibiotics and therefore the risk of antibiotic resistance, including in humans. Early detection of anomalies, before breeder-revealed symptoms, would help move in that direction.
The animal vocalization-based monitoring of pig farms presented above is an example of this. Video camera systems in dairy cow barns or poultry houses also detect behavioral anomalies at a very early stage, before the breeder can detect them himself.
Application also for agro-pastoral systems
Agropastoral systems are systems in which animals develop open spaces with spontaneous, highly diverse vegetation (grassland includes summer pastures, shrubs, undergrowth, etc.).
In such a case, it is very difficult to obtain detailed information about the state of the system, such as the nutritional value of what the animals eat.
Include users in reflections
Human and societal impact assessments (breeder skills, supervisory pressures, social acceptability of animal observation potentially perceived as “delegated to machines”) must necessarily be carried out in collaboration with the disciplines of the social sciences and humanities.
Our file “AGROECOLOGY”
Obviously, this work should include the breeders themselves in the framework of monitoring, surveys and, above all, participatory approaches that guarantee the acceptability and use of the innovations created. The current development of thinking about participatory research finds a particularly suitable area of application here.
This analysis was written by Stéphane Ingran, Deputy Head of the Research Unit “Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems” at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE).
The original article is published on the site Talk.