What does the future hold for livestock production in Australia?

By Dr Drewe Ferguson, Dr Ian Colditz

8 July 2019

13 minute read

Summary

Humans have co-evolved with livestock for millennia since domestication of wild sheep, goats and cattle commenced around 10,000 to 13,000 years ago. Fast forward a few thousand years and livestock farming has undergone significant transformation and growth.

Currently, farmed livestock in Australia generate more than $30 billion annually, just under half the total value of agricultural production. But what does the future hold for the sector? The global demand for meat, dairy and eggs out to 2050 is projected to grow 50-70% according to the FAO. Demand will be driven by population growth and increasing consumer affluence and urbanisation in developing countries. That sounds like a great opportunity for livestock industries and therefore a good reason to be optimistic about the future….right?

Well, it is, but the future for the sector will not simply be guaranteed by demand growth. How well each industry responds to meet the increasing challenges central to the societal determinants of sustainability will be critical. The capacity of the livestock sector to rapidly, effectively and demonstrably find the balance between increased productivity and sustainability will ultimately determine its future.

There are profound challenges confronting the sector:

Livestock sector challenges

The volume and frequency of scientific evidence and commentary concluding that humans should consume less meat (in particular), dairy and eggs has increased. This has been predicated on the impacts of the production and consumption of animal-sourced foods on planetary and human health, respectively. Whilst there is clear consensus amongst dietary and health organisations that moderate consumption of animal derived foods is desirable, there are points of contention in the health debate, such as the link between meat consumption and poor health outcomes (eg lack of causal clinical evidence).

The world is also facing a global malnutrition disparity where 25% of the world’s population are overweight or obese and 39% are undernourished or hungry. Clearly there are countervailing forces that will influence the future demand for meat, dairy foods and eggs in response to these global malnutrition challenges.

The escalation of environmental and ethical concerns regarding livestock production requires greater action from the sector if it is to maintain societal and consumer trust.

This essay will explore the role technologies and the innovation system will play to enable the livestock sector to tackle some of these challenges to keep pace with the increasing consumer demands and societal expectations for livestock products.

Changes in the innovation system

The current innovation system servicing agricultural research and development (R&D) in Australia is in need of reform if we are to maintain or better still, achieve the required growth in productivity (≥ 2%/year) to meet global demands for foods. CSIRO recently explored the opportunities to reinvigorate the agricultural innovation system.

Central here was the need for greater emphasis on innovation (converting science ideas and outputs into application) rather than the current science-centric approach. Structural reforms that yield stronger and more effective linkages and leadership between government, private industry and research agencies are also required.

Big challenges do not get solved by piecemeal, small or short term research investments which unfortunately has been our operating norm. We also need to be cognizant of the national and indeed global contraction in research and extension capacity servicing the livestock sector. In response, there has been a growth in national collaborative research partnerships to maintain multidisciplinary critical capacity.

Expanding research partnerships beyond national boundaries will also be essential given the commonality of the challenges confronting livestock and the contracting research capacity. Ongoing development of more innovative models to deliver industry impact will be critical. Despite this slightly pessimistic tone, improvements in productivity have and continue to be made. However, the capacity to maintain this into the future is under pressure. Therefore a rethink and redesign of how we deliver innovation within the sector and across supply chains is required.

Cattle wearing eShepherd™ virtual fencing system.

Cattle wearing eShepherd™ virtual fencing system. Image supplied by: Agersens.

Virtual fencing innovation

A sheep and cattle producer involved in trialling a virtual fencing system says one of the biggest benefits of the technology is the reduced need for internal physical fences.

NSW producer John Guest trailed Agersens’ eShepherd™ virtual fencing system, a world-first, cloud connected technology for cattle.

The CSIRO-patented system consists of a neckband housing sensors, solar power and GPS trackers. It works by giving audio cues to cattle as they approach the fence and a small electric pulse if they continue on.

Over a short period of time, usually half a day or so, the cows learn to turn away when they hear the audio.

If they do go as far as receiving the pulse, it’s significantly less than the shock of an electric fence.

The system is designed to allow farmers to fence, move and monitor their livestock all via a computer or tablet, without the expense and inflexibility of physical fences.

Mr Guest said internal fences were a major cost to his business and he’d welcome an innovation that could reduce such significant overheads.

He said he could also see big benefits in terms of pasture utilisation and improved biodiversity through the use of virtual fencing.

“The eShepherd™ system will allow incredibly accurate strategic and targeted grazing, or removal of grazing of these areas that, unlike any conventional fencing, can be changed at any time of the day or night, or as the weather changes, with no cost,” he said.

“The only time will be to create or modify a fence on a laptop, computer or tablet.”

Another area of livestock management to benefit could be mustering, according to Mr Guest.

He said virtual fencing could produce a significant reduction in labour costs and create a lower stress environment as animals are moved at a slower pace.

But perhaps one of the areas Guest is most excited about is the potential to track individual animal health, wellbeing and location in real time.

“Being able to provide more timely intervention if an animal is injured or sick is invaluable, as well as the prospect of being able to prevent stock theft,” Mr Guest said.

Digital disruption

Digital technologies, or agtech, are already transforming agriculture, particularly the broad-acre cropping sector. It’s been estimated that the gross value of production of Australian agriculture could increase by $20 billion (relative to 2014/15) through the application of digital technologies.

The penetration of digital technologies within the livestock sector has been slower to evolve but this is changing not just in Australia but globally. We are witnessing significant growth in the developmental pipeline of on-animal sensors, production environment monitoring technologies (soil, water, plant biomass) and novel analytical and decision support tools.

However, one area of concern is the shortage of agtech investment in Australia and there is a need to encourage and support more investment in these technologies to realise their full potential on-farm.

The transformational impact these technologies will have in livestock systems include:

Inherent in all livestock systems is risk (feed supply, disease, climatic extremes etc.) and as a general rule, increased capacity to forecast and manage production risks translates into higher enterprise productivity and resilience. The pivotal role of digital technologies is to provide the producer with the capacity to better estimate and manage production risks.

Feed or food? Debate rages over land use

The spotlight on the impact of livestock on environmental health has intensified. The sustained criticism centres on issues such as the utilisation and degradation of land and water resources and reducing biodiversity losses and GHG emissions.

One of the critical issues is the nexus between land use and feed-food production: the competition to produce livestock feed or human food on arable land. With the intensification of livestock systems, there has been an increase in the amount of grains and pulses fed to livestock. However, contrary to popular perception, a recent global analysis revealed that only 14% of the total feed supplied to livestock consists of materials that could be consumed by humans.

Proportionally, this is expected to rise with the projected increase in livestock production but the increase can be partially attenuated through improvements in feed conversion efficiency, particularly in ruminants (see below).

Often the feed-food debate is considered from an all or nothing perspective, either the land is used to grow grain for livestock or for people. However, it is possible to achieve both on the same parcel of land, at least for ruminants, through dual purpose cropping. Here the animals tactically graze the growing crop (eg wheat) before being removed to allow the plant to recover prior to harvest. Extensive on-farm trials have shown that whilst there may be a slight trade-offs in grain yield, the farm gross margins are significantly higher (at least $100/ha) than producing grain alone.

Animal growth rates are improved and consequently, less methane is produced. Additional animal health and welfare benefits (reduced parasite burdens) are also likely.

Increased utilisation of food by-products and waste streams offers further opportunities to reduce the requirement for arable land to produce livestock feed. What is unknown at this stage is the feasibility of safely and efficiently processing and distributing food waste and by-products to livestock at scale.

As stated above, the vast majority of what animals consume is not edible by humans and this is particularly the case for ruminants, which, by virtue of their unique digestive system, have the capacity to convert plant biomass into meat, milk and fibre.

The proportion of land occupied by grazing animals in Australia is quite large representing 54% of Australia’s total land mass. Environmentally, the establishment of some of this grazing resource has not come without cost as deforestation/land clearing and reductions in biodiversity have occurred. Moving forward, it will be important that the current trend of reduced land clearing continues.

In Australia, GHG emissions from the redmeat sector (cattle and sheep) accounted for approximately 9% of all national GHG emissions. Whilst sectoral GHG emissions have declined 35% from 2005 to 2015 largely through reductions in deforestation, mitigating enteric methane emissions from ruminants remains a major challenge. Importantly, there are nutritional (including novel supplements) and genetic solutions available now and in the pipeline. For example, some current tropical legumes (such as leucaena) have an antimethanogenic effect when fed to cattle.

Genetically, it is possible now to identify and select animals that are either more metabolically efficient in converting feed to muscle, milk or fibre, and/or produce less methane.

For example in dairy cattle, there has been a reduction in total cow numbers over the last decade in Australia but milk production has actually increased through genetic gains in efficiency and improved animal management. This equated to a net reduction of 1%/year in GHG emissions from the sector.

Another exciting prospect is the CSIRO discovery and development of novel rumen modifying supplements such as the seaweed asparagopsis. When tactically fed to cattle and sheep, an 80% reduction in methogenesis was observed.

Whilst impressive as a single technology, there are issues to work through such as scaling up the production of asparagopsis and developing cost effective ways to deliver the supplement under extensive grazing systems.

The take home message here is that there are available and emerging solutions and an integrated strategy rather than any single technology is likely to deliver the best outcomes at a national level given the diversity of production systems.

Given this and factoring in strategies to increase carbon sequestration, there is good reason to be cautiously optimistic about achieving the redmeat sector’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality on-farm by 2030.

Farmer Nick Kershaw in a field of canola.

NSW farmer Nick Kershaw in a field of dual purpose canola. Image supplied by: Nick Kershaw.

Dual purpose crops boast double meaning

The Kershaw family first sowed dual purpose winter crops on their farm in 2013, working with CSIRO to investigate grazing management of wheat and canola varieties in GRDC-funded research.

Nick Kershaw and his father, Rod, now sow Kittyhawk, a dual purpose wheat, and dual purpose Hyola 970 winter canola on their 1800 hectare property near Greenethorpe in New South Wales.

They haven’t sown a large area with dual purpose varieties at this point, but Nick said the output was impressive.

“The Hyola 970 in particular produces a huge amount of biomass,” he said.

“It’s unbelievable. We normally run about nine DSE per hectare (dry sheep equivalents) on pasture in the area, but we’ve got 25 on the canola at the moment and 15 on the wheat.”

“We’ll get to graze sheep for probably six weeks on the Kittyhawk and certainly this year two months on the Hyola 970 before pulling the stock off by mid-July to let the crop recover,” he said. Last year the dual purpose crops were harvested about three weeks earlier than the regular varieties and the grazed paddocks didn’t suffer a yield penalty. 

Early rain and early sowing in March compared to May for their regular varieties, has given this year’s dual purposes crops time to get roots down before being grazed, which are important factors for success in dual purpose cropping, according to Nick.

Rod and CSIRO farming systems agronomist, Dr John Kirkegaard trialled the Hyola 970 on the Kershaw’s farm to determine how heavily it could be grazed, when to take stock off and other factors.

The Kershaws are now working with CSIRO on how best to sequence dual purpose crops over five years. The roots of dual purpose crops can grow as deep as four metres, leaving soils dry and low in nitrogen. Rotating with shallow-rooted legumes like chick peas or lentils, whose roots may only go down to one metre and also fix nitrogen, may help ensure stored soil water and nitrogen are available in alternate years.

Driving production efficiency

Development of sustainable improvements in production efficiency will continue to be a key imperative for livestock. The application of genetic, nutritional, digital, health or management solutions or technologies will continue to drive incremental gains in efficiency.

However, the larger, more transformative improvements are likely to arise through the adoption of more systems-based approaches.

This is by no means a new concept but for a variety of reasons it has lost prominence in livestock production science.

Each livestock enterprise is a complex and dynamic system and whilst benefits accrue through single technology solutions such as genetics or nutritional supplements, far greater gains in productivity, sustainability and profitability are likely to be realised through integrating multiple technologies.

Reinvigorating systems based thinking is critical in the design and execution of future research and development.

Production efficiency is multidimensional but a core aspect relates to the capacity of the animal to convert feed into food and fibre for humans. Unlike the massive gains in feed efficiency that have occurred in pigs and poultry, ruminants on the other hand, have a much lower conversion efficiency.

Whilst progress has been made, ongoing sustainable gains in ruminant feed efficiency will require a more integrated approach that targets the biological intersection between the plant biomass, the rumen microbiome and the animal.

The application of more advanced and sophisticated computational analytics like machine learning will be critical given the sheer magnitude and complexity of biological processes within and interactions between these elements.

CRISPR and other technologies that enable gene editing (small set of targeted changes in the DNA) have considerable potential to transform key drivers of production efficiency.

Whilst highly promising, the technology is not without its challenges.

For example, all of the economically important livestock production and resilience traits (growth, reproduction, disease resistance) are polygenic meaning that they are regulated by large numbers (possibly thousands) of genes.

Secondly, the position food regulators take on whether a small number of gene edits does or does not constitute genetic modification and the flow-on effects on consumer acceptance remains a contentious issue.

In livestock, gene editing has been successfully applied to improve animal health and welfare outcomes such as breeding polled cattle which obviates the need to perform the painful practice of dehorning.

In another exciting application for the egg industry, it is now possible to identify male embryos early in the development of the egg prior to hatching. Instead of destroying millions of day-old male chicks, the identified eggs can be removed and redirected into human vaccine production.

Cattle with eGrazor collars.

Cattle with eGrazor collars.

Feed efficiency breakthrough

A new innovation from CSIRO and the NSW DPI could hold the key to better understanding feed efficiency in livestock. Still in research stage, eGrazor is a tough, hi-tech, solar-powered smart collar system with sensors and radio for real-time data recovery. It accurately classifies the behaviour of individual cattle such as grazing, walking, resting and ruminating to quantify the amount of food consumed. When combined with weight gain records, eGrazor can be used to determine the efficiency of each animal.

The product has caught the attention of Angus Australia’s strategic projects manager Christian Duff who said getting a better handle on the feeding conversion ability of cattle, particularly on pasture, was the ‘holy grail’ because feed was a big cost to all producers.

“But it’s an area we don’t have much information on at all. In years like this, where it’s very dry it’s easy to see that some cattle cope better than others,” he said.

“To be able to identify the most efficient animals and for producers to be able to preference these to breed the next generation will really help improve Australian breeds and maintain our high standards in producing quality beef that meets consumer demands.”

Mr Duff said given the massive number of animals across the planet, it was easy to see how small improvements in feed efficiency could have large cumulative benefits in terms of growing industry productivity and also reducing associated greenhouse gas emissions intensity.

Feeding efficiency – how well an animal can convert the feed they eat into meat, wool, milk or babies – has traditionally been a difficult area for agricultural scientists to master. The old adage that if you can’t measure it you can’t improve it certainly comes into play here. It’s a difficult and time consuming process to measure feed intake of individual livestock, especially in a grazing environment. Until now, this has prevented measurement of efficiency at a scale that can be used easily for breed improvement.

Ethical disruption

Viewpoints on the relationship humans have with the environment are changing and are challenging the economic and political fabric of society in a manner that makes prediction of future scenarios difficult.

The issues and perspectives are complex and are occurring in an environment that can be characterised as ethical disruption, analogous to the digital disruption occurring to older models of livestock production and more generally across society.

For instance, rights and ownership over environmental “assets” including land, water, plants, animals, genotypes and means of production are being challenged by alternative models such as stewardship over these “components” of the environment.

Perceived rights and the identities they entail are rarely surrendered willingly.

More than merely maintaining a watching brief, the livestock sector can contribute to discussions on ethics, for instance by drawing on knowledge of processes of domestication, co-evolution of humans and livestock within agricultural niches, and psychosocial co-dependencies between humans and farm animals.

An important contribution here is to make value statements about the benefits to humanity of livestock production systems that lie beyond the proximate economic value of livestock products.

Feeding our future world will require the livestock sector to proactively manage the balance and indeed tension between increased production efficiency and sustainability.

The science journalist Charles Mann elegantly articulated this tension in his recent book “Prophets and Wizards”.

Prophets argue for a reduction in the agricultural footprint as we have exceeded the planet’s ecological limits whereas wizards believe that increased innovation is central to feeding the world.

Ultimately, the acceptance and the response to these contrasting philosophies will have a large bearing on the future of the livestock sector.

This article first appeared in Farm Online.

 


 

Dr Drewe Ferguson, Livestock Systems, CSIRO Agriculture and Food.

Dr Ian Colditz, Livestock Systems, CSIRO Agriculture & Food.