Take control of on-farm data

Swine producers use a range of technologies on their farms to increase efficiency. Learn how to maximize the benefits from your data.

by Kate Ayers

In the ag industry, and especially in the swine sector, producers can collect a dizzying amount of data from their operations. As a result, farmers can face challenges when they try to manage, interpret and best use this information.

However, when properly managed, operational and environmental data can benefit all types of swine production systems.

Data collection systems can help producers achieve an efficient and low-cost barn environment to raise more productive pigs, says Jeff Schoening, an AGCO Protein (AP) technical sales manager of Automated Production systems.

take control of on farm data
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

“We can look at historical data and compare pig performance with conditions in the barn to make more educated decisions on what the right environmental settings are to get maximum production out of the facilities,” he says.

AP systems provide farmers with machines and equipment, including telemetry-based tracking systems, that help farmers keep up with the industry’s changing demands, the company’s website says. The Canadian regional office is in Elmira, Ont.

To help producers navigate the complex realm of data collection, Better Pork speaks with industry experts to gain a better understanding of the best data to collect and the types of platforms available for producers to use. We also review privacy protection and how production data could provide another income source for farmers.

What data is best?

Through proper planning, farmers can extract the most valuable information to propel their businesses forward. The type of data producers should gather and review will vary from farm to farm and will depend on the production system.

“The data that is most important for farmers to collect is … directly related to the productivity and profitability of their animals,” says Dr. Hyatt Frobose of JYGA Technologies, Inc. He is a swine nutrition specialist and U.S. territory manager.

“That collection is going to depend a little bit on the stage of production and the specific role a producer or worker plays in the production system.”

JYGA Technologies is a family-run equipment manufacturing company based in Quebec. The business provides farmers with electronic sow feeders and accompanying software programs.

Fred Wall, the vice-president of marketing at Farm Credit Canada, agrees with Frobose.

Farmers can use the information gleaned from their data to help them make better decisions, he says.

Jayne Jackson, PigCHAMP’s Iowa-based product and sales manager, provides some examples. The company provides pork producers with a data collection and analysis platform. (PigCHAMP is a Farms.com company, as is Better Pork.)

Producers with lactating sows may measure parameters specific to breeding and reproduction, she says. Farmers with finishing pigs, in contrast, may analyze data pertaining to feed consumption, growth rate and finishing production.

Data collection systems can monitor “weights of feed in bins and feed system run times and can calculate consumption per head,” Schoening adds. Some systems can also look at water and feed consumption patterns “to help farmers predict when there may be a health challenge.”

Producers can use these types of information to optimize herd health and manage expenses.

For example, if a health issue arises, farmers “can start drilling down” on the data, says Jackson.

“If you have data, you can identify the problem easier” and better understand “when and how the problem arose. Then, you can come up with a solution and determine how to prevent or manage the issue in the future.”

Producers can also use their data for benchmarking. Farmers can examine how their operations are performing and compare their production levels to others in the sector, Jackson adds.

Farmers can also monitor operational information to optimize building efficiency and maximize animal welfare.

Farmers can collect such environmental data points as “temperature, humidity, static pressure, and gas levels like CO2 (carbon dioxide), hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia,” says Schoening to Better Pork.

Producers can record “outside weather and temperature, fan stages, positions of inlets and amp draws on motors.”

While all these data points can benefit swine operations, the data collection systems must provide readable analyses.

Indeed, for data to be useful to farmers, the system’s software needs to effectively extract and interpret it, Frobose says.

For example, farmers using JYGA’s Gestal feeders receive daily summaries about their sows’ performance relative to the animals’ feed intake throughout lactation.

“Producers who use these reports and this information in a meaningful way can see the sows that are deviating from the norm, flag those animals and react to them more quickly,” he says.

However, too much data may impede operational efficiency. So, farmers need to find a balance.

data cloud
    Denis Isakov/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“It is possible to over-collect data, and it’s possible to drown yourself in data,” says Wall. He advises farmers to ask themselves, “What (data) will help me make better decisions?”

Frobose agrees.

There need to be management protocols that force farmers or their production teams to look at the accumulated data, he says.

Too often, a producer sees the data as overwhelming. When a producer does not routinely look at the data, it becomes more of a hinderance than an advantage, Frobose says.

“There needs to be a critical control point to react to the reports” to optimize data use in the swine sector, Frobose adds.

Privacy protection

While producers may worry about the security of their precision ag data, many tech companies see their client’s privacy as a top priority.

“Privacy is always important. The one thing we work with our customers on is that the data collected from the Gestal feeding system in their barns is their data,” Frobose says.

“The data is only given out by the producer with his or her permission.”

The Gestal system keeps farmers’ data local by saving it on farmers’ hard drives.

And more businesses are taking steps to ensure that producers have rights to their data and that information is only shared with third parties on the farmers’ terms.

For example, a company named mPowered gives farmers the right to own and share their data as they wish.

The company provides distributed ledger technology. Developed as a global data-sharing ecosystem, it is accessible, decentralized and trustworthy, the startup’s website says. The founders launched this technology in January.

“mPowered empowers farmers. … (They can) not only consent to hiding (or anonymizing) their identity, but also decide (to allow) or deny an individual in the ecosystem from purchasing a particular dataset,” say Joel Sotomayor, the CEO of mPowered, and Idris Soule, the company’s chief technology officer, in an email statement to Better Pork. The pair are also the co-founders of mPowered.

Another way producers can ensure that the companies they work with are committed to protecting farm data is to look for the Ag Data Transparent (ADT) seal.

Organizations that have the ADT seal of approval agree to follow guidelines when collecting, using, storing and transferring farmers’ data, the ADT website says. The American Farm Bureau Federation and industry stakeholders drafted these guidelines.

Companies with this designation “have to be completely transparent” about their farm data practices, Wall says.

“We have to overcome the trust gap in terms of data in agriculture,” he says. “I think ADT is an important step.”

Farmers should also have systems, such as secure networks and passwords, in place to keep their data safe. These safeguards can reduce the risk of unauthorized people accessing data, Jackson says. To protect their farm data, producers should follow security measures like the ones they use to protect email accounts or banking information, she adds.

Producers should speak to their software system providers to ensure that the farmers understand how the systems collect, transmit and store data, as well as the rights producers have to their own information.

Barriers to adoption

While farmers stand at the forefront of technological advancements and regularly look for ways to improve their operations, some producers must grapple with challenges to use precision ag tools.

Some farmers face the hurdle of unreliable Internet connectivity.

“Some people can’t use their phones in the barn,” says Jackson.

“I think that is a global factor. It’s not just an issue in the United States and Canada. The goal is to be able to have everything at our fingertips to run our businesses.

“But, until infrastructure has been put in place, we can’t do that.”

Farmers also face a lack of interoperability between systems.

“We need to paint a true picture of somebody’s business by working together with automatic feed systems, feed mills, genetic companies, etc.,” says Jackson.

Frobose agrees that the industry has many moving parts which work independently.

“Across technology platforms there are a lot of different companies playing different roles in the industry. Merging that data into a useable format is a real challenge.

“However, technology companies are working together to simplify and import/export data into user-friendly formats such as Microsoft Excel,” he says.

“Being able to have all of those records mesh together well into one or two meaningful reports is essential.

“Even if those companies are the best in their respective areas, farmers often have to look at 10 different reports.”

Since “each business is an expert in its area,” Jackson says, allied partners in the swine industry should “work together to come up with holistic solutions.” This approach will enable “producers to make business decisions that are best for their farms.”

In addition, labour shortages in the swine sector can make it difficult for farmers to adequately examine and interpret data in a timely fashion.

“On a lot of farms in Canada and the U.S., the staffing situation is so severe that there is not enough time to train a team to properly use the technology,” Frobose says.

“So, the technology can sometimes not get started the right way, and then it isn’t successfully adopted. That’s been the challenge for some people: making the leap from a more hands-on approach to a more technological feedback approach.”

On the horizon

While the ag sector has experienced significant technological advancements, further improvements to collection systems and data analyses could help the industry better realize the benefits of digital record keeping.

The management of data and its metadata is important, Sotomayor and Soule say.

“We would like to see protocols set up for the management of data so that relationships between datasets, disparate or not, can be accurately made.”

Such improvements could help farmers draw better and faster conclusions from their data.

Some stakeholders would like to see technology that helps farmers “manage by exception,” Frobose says. Using such technologies, producers could devote more resources to animals that need extra attention.

“I would love to see ear tags that have GPS pins on them become more affordable,” he says.

“I think that would make locating animals much easier and allow producers to go directly toward problem animals.”

pigs in barn stalls
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

Technologies that allow farmers to focus on problem animals and spend less time on healthy ones could help the industry tackle labour challenges, Frobose adds.

“I would also like to see the application of camera technologies that are being developed in other sectors to score growth or body conditions of animals. I would like to see those tools become feasible from a cost and implementation standpoint.”

In addition, data monetization could soon be a reality. Indeed, farmers could make money by choosing to share their production information with companies in the industry. This possibility could put farmers back in the driver’s seat, giving them more control over how others use their data.

security cloud
    Traitov/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“Data is the new currency; many just have not attributed it value,” Sotomayor and Soule say.

“For a unit of currency to be (issued), it must follow the properties of scarcity, fungibility (i.e., the commodity’s individual units are essentially interchangeable), divisibility, durability and transferability,” they say. “Data can meet all (these) properties.”

Through the mPowered network, farmers can monetize their data by selling it to the companies of their choice.

mPowered assigns values to data based on algorithms and has control points to ensure data accuracy. The company assigns value in both local (i.e. Canadian or American) and crypto currencies.

Overall, farmers have endless opportunities to collect and use data says Schoening.

“Today, we are continuing to develop tools that tie environmental data, records and conditions to the production side of operations.

“So, we can look at the effects that environmental settings or weather conditions have on pig production” and decide “how we set barn climatic conditions during certain times of the year or based on weights of pigs,” he says.

“We can also look at feed consumption rates based on temperature and humidity. We can see what effects those conditions have on feed consumption and adjust diets accordingly. There are a lot of things we can do with this data as we move forward.”

However, to reach these desired outcomes, farmers and their herd management teams must start by using and interpreting the data appropriately.

“Technology and information can either play a big part in the solution, or they can contribute to the problem if they’re applied incorrectly,” says Frobose. BP

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