Since 1991, calf weaning weights on ranches have stayed consistent, but profitability has decreased. Calf weaning weight is a measurement used to track the progress of calf growth as they transition from their mother’s milk to adult feed processes.
Large energy costs have led to an increase in expenses on ranches such as land, feed and labor, according to Travis Mulliniks, assistant professor of animal science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Mulliniks said costs can be reduced by increasing resource efficiency through new technology.
Mulliniks presented a webinar Oct. 26 through UNL’s Center for Grassland Studies titled “Using New Technology on the Ranch.” He said technology can aid in reducing the challenges faced by ranchers by helping them make informed decisions.
“Ranch management can be difficult, but it’s impossible without data and information,” Mulliniks said. “Knowledge is power.”
Some challenges include narrow profit margins, increased feed and labor costs, increased environmental and animal welfare pressure, as well as issues finding and retaining skilled workers.
Accurate real-time monitoring of individual cattle performance — daily body weight, feed intake and water intake — rather than average cattle performance can help increase ranchers’ decision-making abilities. This is because looking at specific cows allows for earlier indications of health issues.
“We focus on preventive health and performance at the cow level, so instead of managing an entire herd and getting an average performance, I can manage each individual cow and optimize her performance within that environment and increase the total production efficiency,” Mulliniks said.
This precision animal monitoring also allows for more objective decision-making in risk management, reduced costs and improved animal health and well-being.
These factors can be measured through newer technologies. For example, ranchers can monitor watering sites with remote cameras and drones or check daily weights with walk-over weighing systems and imaging/camera systems.
“That’s a really powerful tool,” Mulliniks said of camera systems. “It could possibly pick up early sickness by some kind of measurement with that picture.”
Other emerging technologies include individual animal feeders, ear tags that track grazing and virtual fences.
According to Mulliniks, it is important for these technologies to be cost-effective, flexible, reliable and provide the opportunity for continuous improvement so that information is available for ranchers to make meaningful management decisions.
Mulliniks said a problem that can arise from using technology is connectivity issues.
“Connectivity will either drive the embrace of technologies from the ranching side or it will not allow the use of technologies on that side of ag,” Mulliniks said.