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Increasing profit margins with precision livestock

Meet the Network
Agri-TechE

The New Zealand owned company Livestock Improvement Corporation UK Ltd (LIC) is no stranger to precision livestock. “We have been measuring the performance of cows for over 100 years,” explains Mark Ryder of LIC. “The core of the business is dairy genetics and data, and we use that information to help farmers make the best breeding decisions.”

As a small country with no subsidies, New Zealand farmers need to lower the costs of production and be as efficient as possible in order for their exports to compete on a world stage.

So, as a farmer owned cooperative, the focus at LIC is on careful management of grassland, including the use of satellite technologies, to reduce the cost of supplementary feeding and improved genetics, to reduce environmental impacts, cut waste and increase resilience to adverse conditions.

Mark Ryder, LIC
Mark Ryder, LIC

It was LIC that introduced the ‘NZ Controlled Grazing’ system to the UK. It focuses on growing high quality grass through well-managed grazing and utilisation.

The system has been widely adopted by dairy farmers keen to increase profit margins on the supply of milk to the UK’s 65M consumers each day.

However, Mark explains that to be successful this system takes effort, measuring and recording. The company is looking to automate this process with Satellite Pasture Measurement.

“The NZ farmers are already using Satellite Pasture Measurement and we are in the last stages of trials in the UK to adapt the algorithms to local conditions. The satellites pass over the farm every day and measure how much grass is on your farm. It sends you an image along with an estimate of growth rate. This can direct you where to graze next and which paddocks can be cut for silage.

“Any producer with access to grass is trying to increase the proportion of grass in the diet, so we are talking to beef farmers as well as dairy and looking to roll out the system across Scotland, Ireland, and France.”

LIC Newstead

LIC was developed by farmers for farmers and an important element of this is the peer mentoring ‘Pasture to Profit’ discussion groups, which ensure the company is literally in touch with its grassroots.

There are 8 -20 farmers in each group, and they meet up on a member’s farm. A lot of ideas come out of the group. An LIC consultant facilitates the meeting and goes through any of the technical issues that come up, as Mark explains.

“Most of the guys we work with are making a good living out of farming because of the approach they’re taking. These are early adopters of technology, so anything that makes it easier to get staff, improve work/life balance and that has a financial payoff they’ll invest in pretty quick.

“But they are very conscious of cost benefit analysis of purchases they make; it needs to deliver profit and that is their focus.”

“The big thing at the moment is investment into collar technology to help detect oestrus. These smart collars are finally doing what has been promised for years and managing fertility is vital. You need to have a cow calving every 365 days to coincide with grass growth.

“It is not just investment in collars but also the systems that are enabled by them, such as sorting gates and automated data collection.”

Castiles Farm
Castiles Farm

LIC has its own team of scientists working alongside government agencies. This includes a trial to see if they can genetically improve a herd to reduce methane emission and nitrate excretion. The trial has revealed a big difference between the best and the worst performing bulls and these two extremes have been used to create heifers and monitor them through a couple of lactations.

“There are many claims of environmentally efficient genetics but very little science behind it,” Mark continues. “This trial will be one of the first to provide that, as the feed intake and outputs are being measured in a controlled environment.”

Mark expects the results to be released shortly as the calves are coming up to a year old and will be mated in August – October 2024.

Methane barn - Chudleigh farm
Methane barn at Chudleigh farm

Global warming increases the stress on cattle and another LIC project is determining the role of the SLICK gene [see lic.co.nz/news/meet-new-zealands-coolest-cows/].

Mark continues: “Our scientists discovered the SLICK gene sort of by accident.  The offspring of one of the bulls we had bred were under heat stress, and kept trying to cool off in the water troughs.

“We found it was caused by a genetic mutation and that led to the discovery of the SLICK gene. Cattle with this gene have a fine coat and lower internal temperatures. So, they can handle the heat, but their milk yield was low.

“We are trialling the development of high index bulls, that can pass on the SLICK gene without compromising the yield. This is attracting a lot of interest in the UK and Europe.”

“Going forward, there’s a lot of focus in New Zealand, and up here as well, around recording environmental information, just to make sure that we’re reducing impacts on the environment with what we’re doing.

“As we have seen with the SLICK gene, you need to look at the big picture and not optimise for just one thing.  This needs good scientific data, that is objective, and has multiple sources.

“The biggest challenge, I think, is that farmers being pushed to make decisions that aren’t based on scientific modelling of outcomes.

“Our approach of supporting independent science with real world trial, aims to provide that rigour for our farmer-base.”

Castiles Farm LIC

All images courtesy of LIC.