February 23, 2016

High tech solution fattens Australian cows

An advanced software system developed in Alice Springs called Precision Pastoral Management System (PPMS) is helping cattle farmers manage their land better by identifying areas in their production cycle that need to be improved. It could add an estimated $70,000 to the bottom line for the average rangeland cattle property.

The Precision Pastoral Management System (PPMS), an advanced software system developed in Alice Springs, is helping make cattle farming more of a science than an art. It’s also adding to the bottom line.

Picture a world where cattle farmers are all-knowing. Imagine they know how much a particular cow weighs on any given day. What shape various paddocks spread across thousands of kilometres are in. Whether their herd’s weight is trending up or down.

Actually, you don’t have to fantasise about the above scenario. The Alice Spring-based Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (CRC-REP) has made it a reality with its Precision Pastoral Management System (PPMS).

Sally Leigo, the research leader for PPMS project, explains it’s the result of exploiting two existing data-gathering technologies.

“In 2010, the CRC-REP began investigating whether it would be able to build a software system. One that could analyse the data that automated cattle weighing and satellite imaging technology was generating,” Leigo says. “What we wanted to create, and are now in the final stages of road testing, is a system to take those two streams of data and provide analysis. The kind of granular analysis that allows farmers to make better decisions about when to sell cattle. Or change paddocks. Or start feeding their cattle supplements.”

Leigo and her team began working on a prototype for what would become PPMS in 2012. By 2013, they had it up and running on three farms in Queensland, Western Australia and Northern Territory. There are currently nine large cattle farms trialling PPMS. Cattle farmers are welcome to apply to join the collection of test cases immediately. The technology should be available commercially sometime in 2017. “We’re now working out issues such as deciding whether to charge a one-off fee, have a licensing arrangement or try a freemium model,” Leigo says.

Whatever the final pricing structure, farmers in Australia, and around the world, may be able to markedly increase their profitability for an investment of a few hundred dollars.

“A real life example is PPMS analysis making it clear to one station manager that both the weight of his cattle and quality of his pastures had gone into decline,” Leigo says.

“This was six weeks before he was planning on going to market. He couldn’t quite believe that was the case, so he drove out around the property and saw with his own eyes that the PPMS analysis was spot on. Now, let’s presume he sold 400 cows immediately. Let’s say each of those cows would have lost 10 kilograms if he’d waited six more weeks to do that. If he’s selling at a price of $3 a kilogram, he’s ended up making $12,000 more than he otherwise would have.

Back when the beef price was $2.20 a kilo, we did the sums and estimated the average rangeland cattle property could add $70,000 a year to the bottom line by using PPMS.”

There are costs involved in implementing PPMS. The cattle weighing units, made by Precision Pastoral, cost $20,000 each, for example. Nonetheless, Leigo is optimistic about the widespread adoption of PPMS. She believes it will benefit both producers and consumers.

“It was developed for rangeland properties. I’d expect it will be those with similar operations in parts of North and South America, Africa, China and Mongolia who will be most interested initially,” she says. “But there’s no reason PPMS can’t also be applied to smaller, irrigated pastures.”

Once PPMS gains widespread use, consumers can look forward to more – and presumably cheaper – beef. Cattle farmers can look forward to a lot less stress.

“This is part of the big data trend. It’s going to make cattle farming more of a science than an art,” says Leigo. “Especially once they’ve collected a few years of data, farmers are going to be able to manage their land better. They’ll be able to identify areas in their production cycle that need to be improved. They’ll also be better informed when making high-stakes decisions around destocking before a drought, or locking in forward contracts. In a nutshell, PPMS will allow farmers to move from being reactive to proactive.”

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