The Digital Homestead: is the future of livestock farming based in the cloud?

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The goal of the Digital Homestead project, a collaboration between CSIRO and JCU researchers, was to develop digital technologies and web-based solutions that would “enable better decision-making on farms, leading to improved productivity and profitability”. The cutting-edge ICT – wi-fi sensor networks, data analytics and rural connectivity –  deployed in an experimental capacity on the Homestead, has potential to boost returns to Australia’s northern beef farmers, and may be applied productively to other livestock agribusinesses, the researchers say.

The project team, helmed by Dr Ed Charmley, group leader of CSIRO’s Agriculture Flagship, and Professor Ian Atkinson, director of the eResearch Centre at Townsville’s James Cook University (JCU), set out explore ways in which 21st-century information and communication technologies (ICT) – wireless sensor networks (WSNs), data analytics and rural connectivity – could be used to support greater productivity and increased profitability for Australia’s northern beef industry.

The core of the Digital Homestead project entailed developing a web-based data dashboard capable of integrating real-time data collected by farm sensors (on soil, pasture and herd health – such as the location, activity and weight of individual cattle) with useful data from external sources (weather forecasts, live weather monitoring, cattle market pricing, tank levels, etc.), and delivering all this data to users in timely, meaningful ways.

The team focused on four key areas:  

  1. developing livestock monitoring solutions;
  2. developing pasture monitoring solutions;
  3. furthering knowledge about cattle-cattle cattle-environment interactions;
  4. developing and refining a digital dashboard capable of integrating key information in ways that would be useful and easily accessible to users, including livestock farmers and advisors.

Currently, the team is fine-tuning and demonstrating state-of-the-art sensor and tracking technology that monitors key variables on cattle properties, conveying real-time, property-specific information – along with useful external data – to farmers via a browser-connected digital dashboard accessible via any smart device.

Digital technology and solutions developed or being trialled include ways to help cattle farmers monitor soil and pasture health, weather, water usage, and animal health and behaviour, so as better manage grazing, reproduction, preparing livestock for market and business planning.

Once the new tools and systems have been trialled and honed, it is hoped they’ll have widespread commercial application across Australia’s beef cattle industry –and potentially, across other livestock sectors, here and globally.

The driver: a digital dashboard

The backbone of the Digital Homestead project was developing and refining a ‘digital dashboard’ that improved the decision-support system for farmers and agricultural advisors.

The idea was to create a ‘one-stop-shop’ that makes it easy for Australia’s northern cattle farmers and advisors – and potentially, any livestock agribusiness – to access information concerning their herd’s health and productivity remotely, in a timely, useful way.

The web-based ‘dashboard’ the project team has developed is able to capture, integrate and present several data streams, from on-farm and outside sources and deliver the information remotely to the user’s digital dashboard via any wi-fi-enabled smart device. .

Detailed real-time data on livestock properties’ soil, pastures, water supplies as well as herd health and behaviour, is collected at regular intervals via sensors, wireless tracking devices and other technologies, integrated with climate, market data and other information from external sources, and customised to users’ requirements.

Data fed into the dashboard is accessible from anywhere in the country – or the world – that is internet-connected via a simple login and password.

Check out the video below for more on the Digital Dashboard.

Collecting real-time data: cloud-based sensors and wireless technology

Along with the project ‘hub’, the dashboard, CSIRO and JCU researchers have been developing and trialling various cloud-based sensors and wireless technologies to collect and aggregate all this farm-specific data.

They include:

  • livestock monitoring technology and wi-fi-enabled solutions,
  • pasture monitoring solutions (including exploring existing technology, such as proximal and remote sensing);
  • tools and technology that further farmers’ understanding of interactions between cattle and their environment (such as their locations and grazing behaviour) and
  • tools and technology that enable farmers to monitor and evaluate individual animals’ health and market readiness (such as weigh-station measurements and body condition scores).

Livestock monitoring tools

Livestock monitoring technology and wi-fi enabled solutions are a key part of the Digital Homestead. So far, the team has:

  • developed an in-field tracking system that can monitor individual animals’ location and behaviour;
  • established an in-field system for weighing livestock; and
  • explored, and is evaluating, technology that monitors each animal’s body condition.

Cattle tracking collar

One key piece of technology in the Digital Homestead’s toolbox is a solar-powered, wireless cattle collar developed by CSIRO scientists that collects performance-critical information about individual beasts, such as their location and grazing behaviour. This information can help farmers make better decisions about grazing management, feed supply and when to muster.

The idea is that data collected by the cattle collars will help boost the percentage of livestock that meet market specifications and optimise their reproductive performance.

Remote liveweight and body condition data

The researchers are using commercially available ‘walk-over weighing’ systems to establish animal liveweights, then integrating this data into the sensor network so farmers can access each animal’s weight remotely in real time. They’re also evaluating new technology that ascertains individual animals’ body condition score, aiming to add this to the dashboard’s data on weight.

Environmental and herd data

Real-time data on local climate, soil and vegetation, along with information on the behaviour of individual animals, has the potential to support livestock farmers and property managers in making educated decisions about areas of their properties that may be under- or over-grazed.

Cattle, farmers and the environmental all benefit, as accurate, continually updated data on the health of soil and vegetation around the property gives farmers the information they need to optimise grazing regimes. And better grazing practises reduce erosion and outflows.

The future

The Digital Homestead project has successfully demonstrated improved on-farm management of animals due to the data gathered via wireless sensor networks and technology.

This data, says CSIRO, “is synthesised and presented in a user-friendly format that can be used to improve beef herd management and increase the proportion of animals meeting market specifications”.

The team acknowledges that further investment in integration, “such as inclusion of the pasture remote sensing technologies into the data dashboard, as well as more sophisticated data analytics and decision-support tools” is required, and note that “the ultimate utility of the project will be dependent upon further development in collaboration with end-users and industry to form a coherent set of industry standards.”

However, the project’s findings to date suggest that the new Digital Homestead tools and solutions have real potential to boost Northern Australia’s beef farmers’ productivity and returns, by giving them the data they need to make faster, better management decisions – from the next paddock or thousands of kilometres away.

Find out more at the The Digital Homestead project site

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