Another big part of the food supply comes from ranches and farms that raise and slaughter various livestock. While ranching is sometimes bundled with agriculture, I discussed farming in Big Data in Agriculture, so we’ll focus on ranching this time around. Somewhat surprising is that big data usage in ranching appears more limited than in farming. That said, there are a number of novel uses of technology and data in animal husbandry.
At a high level, the goals of ranching and farming are the same as any business: increase yields and lower costs. Production maximization has long played a role in large operations. A twist to the optimization problem is land use optimization and how that can affect yields. According to NASA, “Australia’s rangelands provide an opportunity to sustainably produce meat without contributing to deforestation” if properly managed. This sort of optimization is made possible by big data coming from satellites. The same article cites how some West African nations use satellite data “to identify areas with agricultural potential and to estimate the amount of food available.” Growing up in rural Colorado, the most advanced tech I saw at ranches were solar powered fences and artificial insemination. Clearly a lot has changed. From a supply chain perspective, these trends also demonstrate how just-in-time manufacturing can be extended to resource allocation.
From a technical perspective, crop and livestock rotation will become outputs of a multi-objective optimization problem. I imagine that the challenge will be less about the optimization and more about the inelasticity of “bioprocesses”. Aside from slaughter or transfer to somewhere else, there aren’t too many options for reducing “inventory”. Presumably these issues already exist, so any solution is bound to be an improvement. Ultimately, there is a race to avoid the outcome that the U.N. foresees: the majority of humans eating insects as a primary source of protein. Even if that future is unavoidable (not necessarily bad), presumably similar techniques can be used to maximize insect yields.
Technology advancements are driving parralel trends in agriculture and ranching. While satellite imagery offers a big picture overview, sensors provide a micro view of individual plants and animals. RFID tags are a first step enabling real-time tracing of an animal. Equally important is the assignment of a unique identifier to facilitate storing electronic records that can be merged into a centralized dataset. RFID is fundamentally passive, whereas sensors are active. This is where biosensors and Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) come into play. PLF is a comprehensive approach to livestock management and animal welfare. The goal is “continuous, fully automatic monitoring and improvement of animal health and welfare, product yields and environmental impacts” Some of the sensors developed to achieve this are surprisingly simple and surprisingly clever, such as sensors that monitor the vocalizations of livestock to determine stress, illness, etc. These advances can also “raise milk yields, while also increasing cows’ life expectancy and reducing their methane emissions by up to 30%” (CEMA).