Cameras monitor and analyse their every movement. Wearable sensors track their vital signs. Genetic testing informs a bespoke nutritional regime to optimise performance.
This may sound like the backrooms of La Liga’s elite football clubs, or the race preparations of a Formula 1 team. But this is increasingly the reality of Europe’s livestock farms, where modern health technology is instead helping to lower emissions rather than lift trophies.
Expanding the use of these innovations as part of the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy will be integral to achieving the Green Deal agenda, ensuring the future of European food production works for people and planet.
Just as elite teams make use of the latest technology to maximise results and avoid injuries on the playing field, the farms and fields of Europe’s livestock farmers are increasingly incorporating a range of animal health products to both minimise the impact of livestock illnesses while maximising the sustainability of the food they produce.
SmartAgriHubs for groundbreaking innovations
Now, more supportive government initiatives, such as the EU’s SmartAgriHubs (1) project to build an agricultural innovation ecosystem on the continent, can further incentivise and support the uptake of these vital products. Such initiatives will not only help to lower existing entry barriers and costs in accessing these cutting-edge technologies for farmers but will, in turn, help to achieve the EU’s broader environmental goals, particularly given the impressive environmental track records of many of these products.
For instance, special feed additives, which are incorporated into the feeding routines of livestock animals, display clear environmental benefits, as well as supporting a higher standard of health and welfare for farm animals in the long term.
Feed additives can reduce the volume of methane emitted by farm animals, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) with a significantly greater warming effect than carbon dioxide, of which livestock production accounts for more than half (2) of the EU’s annual emissions. At the same time, when they are combined with other farm management techniques, feed additives can also reduce the carbon footprint of livestock by almost a third (3).
Encouraging greater development of such additives by manufacturers would not only benefit farmers directly through improved on-farm productivity and animal health but would also contribute more broadly to reduced livestock emissions across the continent.
Secondly, autonomous livestock monitoring platforms, including AI-driven tools which incorporate visual and audio monitoring of key signs of livestock illness, likewise offer dual benefits for farmers and the environment.
For example, deep learning and AI technologies to monitor cow mobility on farms can help to reduce lameness through early detection from 25 per cent (4) to 13.5 per cent within six months. This not only improves the welfare of animals on farms but also offers economic benefits for farmers and encourages more sustainable production.
As research from the UK Animal Health and Welfare Technical Directorate shows, a 10 per cent decrease in lameness in an average dairy herd saves £91.25 per cow per year. Likewise, early treatment can also improve efficiency and reduce livestock’s carbon footprint by half a tonne of carbon per animal.
Finally, breakthroughs in livestock genetic research could also potentially lead to significant sustainability benefits for Europe’s farms. As a study of on-farm records and livestock genetic data showed, the top 25 per cent of cows with superior genetics demonstrated 10 per cent less methane emissions in their lifetimes. These profiled cows also displayed 44 per cent less antibiotic usage for their lifetimes and five per cent less feed for maintenance purposes as compared to the inferior 25 per cent group (5).
Investing in the next generation animals
In light of this evidence, governments must seriously consider investing in livestock genetic research and breeding programmes as a means to pave the way for the next generation of animals to be even more sustainable, while also delivering productivity and efficiency benefits for Europe’s farmers.
Ultimately, growing evidence indicates the potential for modern animal health technologies to reduce GHG emissions and improve sustainability, not to mention deliver higher standards of animal welfare, supporting more productive farms, and reducing the spread of cross-species disease.
As such, increasing the availability and use of animal health products across the EU, many of which are already beginning to make a mark across the continent, is an open goal for sustainability.
(2) ETC HE Report 2022/21: Emissions of ammonia and methane from the agricultural sector. Emissions from livestock farming. https://www.eionet.europa.eu/etcs/etc-he/products/etc-he-products/etc-he-reports/etc-he-report-2022-21-emissions-of-ammonia-and-methane-from-the-agricultural-sector-emissions-from-livestock-farming
(3) How farmers can reduce emissions: DAIRY https://cielivestock.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/CIEL-Dairy-Emissions-Fact-Sheet-A4-4pp.pdf
(4) 2021 winners follow up: Terry Canning, Agri-tech Innovator of the Year https://www.britishfarmingawards.co.uk/2021-winners-follow-up-terry-canning-agri-tech-innovator-of-the-year/
(5) New Study Shows Genetically Superior Cows Can Be More Sustainable and Productive https://news.zoetis.com/press-releases/press-release-details/2022/New-study-shows-genetically-superior-cows-can-be-more-sustainable-and-productive/default.aspx