Advances in technology have had major impacts on every sector and every industry in nearly every country around the world. From the small business owner who is able to answer client e-mails and track shipments via his Smartphone to manufacturing companies using computer-guided lasers to make precision cuts in materials to corporate executives from around the world coming together to conduct a meeting via video conference, technology made it all happen.
The same is true for the agriculture industry. While the romantic notion of a cowboy on horseback, rope in hand, corralling his cattle herd still exists, many times that scene is now augmented with all-terrain vehicles. For farmers, looking across their fields is still done the old-fashioned way with their own eyes at human height. But many now utilize global positioning systems to get a bird's eye view as well.
Recently, researchers from the public and private sectors have made some advancements pertaining to the livestock industry that might help producers now and in the near future.
Photo courtesy of USDA.gov --
Craig Hale, left, of Future Segue, and animal scientist Dean Anderson examine the prototype virtual fence device they invented. Audio cues generated from the device, which will strap around the cow’s head, will tell the cattle which way to move.
The first is the idea of virtual fencing, which is not actually new the technology has been utilized for household pets since the 1970s. But it has only been in the last decade that the idea has spread to include larger free-ranging animals, both domesticated and wild.
"Imagination is the limit with virtual fencing," said Mark Thibodeau, founder of Krimar, a company that is currently in the process of commercializing the technology. "It can work on any animal in the kingdom, although size and weight will be an issue."
He added that countries and organizations around the world have looked into the technology to control animals from wild elephants in Africa to sheepdogs in Canada to wild elk throughout North America.
Recently, the Agricultural Research Service, the research arm of the United States Department of Agriculture, agreed to grant a license to Krimar of Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, in Canada, for a type of non-wire, virtual fencing technology for cows using global positioning.
Although Krimar's primary business is Web design and custom software, Thibodeau had an idea while out driving one day.
"I was looking for a new technology to commercialize and while I was out driving one day I saw cows in a field and I thought 'We have Web-enabled fridges and powerbars why not cows?'" Thibodeau said. "I'm an electrical engineer by trade, so while the virtual fencing was a new venture, the technology was nothing new it's just applied differently."
The Directional Virtual Fencing system sends an electronic cue to a cow's ears, directing the animal in the desired direction using global positioning technology. Named Ear-a-round, the device consists of a lightweight box that is placed on the cow's head and attached are two earphones and electrodes. The box contains a small computer, a transceiver and GPS equipment while the ear pieces and electrodes provide the auditory and electric stimulation. The auditory signals can range from the human voice to sirens and can be raised or lowered in volume while the electrical stimulation can vary from a tingling sensation to a reduced-power cattle prod.
"We purposefully put in a ramped warning system because we wanted to provide the animal a range to decide if they are irritated enough to react and obey," said Dean Anderson, research animal scientist at the USDA's Jornada Experiment Range. "You don't need a sledge hammer to get an animal's reaction."
Anderson has devoted more than 35 years of his career to the concept, and has been working with Thibodeau for the past year in hopes of finding a commercially viable product.
Some of the hurdles researchers still have to overcome include power sources, adaptability and learning by cattle, the identification of cow leaders, cost and other potential logistical uses.
Once ready for commercial use, Krimar estimated the cost of the Directional Virtual Fencing system to be $3,272 for the base station, which includes the power source and data storage, and the management unit, which includes software, a wireless adapter for communicating with the base station and any aerial images.
The cattle unit, which consists of a halter and the Ear-a-round, costs $849 per unit, but researchers estimated that only 10 percent of a herd would need to be outfitted with the device because of herd mentality. Assuming only 10 percent of cattle were fitted, Thibodeau said it would cost a producer with 500 head of cattle $45,722, or about $440 per month if financed at 8 percent for 15 years. With traditional fencing costing producers tens of thousands of dollars, the system may provide more options, although it is not a cookie cutter solution.
"Every herd is different and every landscape is different," Anderson said. "With virtual fences, producers need to accept the possibility of leaky fences. It's based on modifying an animal's behavior, which is not predictable 100 percent of the time."
He added that traditional fences will still be required in high risk areas such as highways. "(Directional Virtual Fencing) is one piece of the total fabric of management," he said. "It's not a magic bullet. Understanding how an animal moving across the landscape affects the future vegetation is a key concept. It's not a replacement for husbandry of the land and management of vegetation, but it is a tool to optimize the two aspects of animal agriculture."
While some companies are focusing on the external properties of the industry, others are looking inward.
Formed in 2002, Igenity is the DNA division of Merial in Duluth, Ga., a world leader in animal health. Igenity offers DNA analysis for beef and dairy producers, looking at 11 traits and hundreds of genetic markers. Zac Hall, Igenity representative for the Dakotas and Minnesota, said he conducted nearly 3,000 tests last year alone.
"These traits have been validated through the National Beef Cattle Consortium and the markers have to be proven significant in another population, so the results are very accurate," Hall said.
The cost of the DNA analyses are $38 for beef and $35 for dairy.
For beef cattle, the 11 traits routinely tested include average daily gain, tenderness, backfat, ribeye area, marbling, quality grade, heifer pregnancy rate, stayability, maternal calving ease and docility. Additional testing services include coat color, feed efficiency and horned/pulled. The company uses a different DNA profile for dairy cattle, concentrating on items such as milk production and milkfat.
With so many traits analyzed, producers can easily become overwhelmed with decisions, so Igenity instituted a program requirement to ease concerns.
"Producers outline their goals - what do they want to find or improve - and we use the test results to focus in on those details," Hall said. "Producers can see how their cattle stack up, but we caution them about singling out for a single trait, like say ribeye, because it may damage another trait like marbling, and you don't want that."
Hall said the top reasons producers have their herd's DNA analyzed is to improve the overall genetics of the herd by identifying the strongest and weakest animals and to identify parentage on calves.
"(By doing the DNA testing) you can identify animals doing things right or who are not living up to your expectations and can then make changes to the herd at an earlier age before you get too much invested," Hall said.
Igenity is currently in the process of getting its marker technology incorporated into the Expected Progeny Differences, which estimates the genetic value of an animal as a parent and is provided to all registered animals. Hall said the company's technology would increase the accuracy of those reports from 10 to 15 percent to nearly 20 or 30 percent.
Jerry and Norma Effertz, owners of Effertz Black Butte Acres near Velva, used the technology this spring on their own herd.
"We (used the technology) for our replacement females where we tested for seven traits," Jerry Effertz said. "We didn't keep or not keep an animal due to one trait but used all of the traits to make a decision. Docility is one characteristic that I like I'm too old to be jumping fences but whether buyers use the information is their decision. I want to provide information on characteristics to best serve their needs."
Contrary to popular cliche, for livestock producers, what's on the outside may be just as important as what's on the inside.
"There are producers out there that only want to raise black or red cattle, and with a very high degree of possibility, can pick a sire to produce the desired red or black calf by using the DNA testing," Effertz said.
"It's such a cool career because you see so many different levels and ways which the information is incorporated. It's still a new technology, so it's a constant education for everyone from producers to marketers so that everyone can understand the technology and what it can truly offer," Hall said.
Another company focusing on the microscopic level is Willmar, Minn.-based Epitopix LLC, who was given a conditional license from the USDA to market an E. Coli vaccine for cattle in the U.S., the first company to do so. In the works since 2003, the vaccine targets a specific strains of E. Coli known as 0157, which, although it doesn't sicken cattle, is estimated to sicken more than 70,000 people in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The vaccine works by preventing the bacterial strain from absorbing iron, an essential component, in the cow's intestines. Using Epitopix's patented Siderophore Receptor and Porin, or SRP Technology, the company takes the protein used by the bacteria to absorb the iron from the host animal and then injects them back into the cattle, triggering an immune response against the proteins.
Studies conducted on the vaccine showed that less than 2 percent of the animals vaccinated tested positive for the 0157-strain and of those animals who tested positive, they had a 98 percent reduction in the number of bacteria present compared to unvaccinated animals who tested positive for the strain.
The vaccine became commercially available in February, but James Sandstrom, general manager, said that due to time constraints, the product will not be widely available for this marketing year but will be available nationally for cattle marketed in 2010.
Sandstrom explained that at this time of the year any infected animals present would be in the pen already and would have contaminated the surrounding environment through shedding and other means, and with the peak of the E. Coli season in August, vaccinating harvestable animals in April would not allow the vaccine enough time to make an impact.
He added that the company is encouraging producers to vaccinate their animals between October and December in order to be ready for the 2010 marketing year. The company declined to give a price for the vaccine, but a Canadian company that also makes an E. Coli vaccine for cattle sells the product for $7 (U.S.) per cow.
"The impact we hope this has is to add to what big packers are already doing to prevent 0157 from reaching the human food market," Sandstrom said. "An outbreak is the most devastative financial setback for the whole industry. And while they (packers) do carcass washes, we want to watch out to make sure 0157 doesn't get through the cracks."
With nearly 40 years in the business, Effertz has seen the impact technology has had on the livestock industry.
"Forty years ago, laptop computers wasn't even a word, and now most can't get along without it," Effertz said. "That same sense is applicable to the cattle industry with modern day livestock producers using nearly all the technology available to them.
"We are no longer an isolated market," he said. "We don't talk about what works here, but what works around the world."