Improved efficiency, agricultural sustainability: AgTech trends in the US

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis contact

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/phototechno
© iStock/phototechno
Data tracking, aquaculture and insect production offer some areas for ag technology investments moving forward, says CEO.

We caught up with David Hunt, CEO of the agricultural technology company Cainthus, at One, the Alltech Ideas Conference to hear more about the work his company to improve the efficiency of dairy cattle production and where he sees the future of ag technology going.

There are several questions that have to be addressed in work with new or upcoming agricultural technology, said Hunt.

“When I look at this revolution that’s really starting now, for the first time it’s not a question of can we feed people? We can feed 11 billion people using today’s technologies,”​ he told FeedNavigator. “It’s not a question of starvation, it’s a question of what do we do to our planet in the process of providing that nutrition to those people?”

Answers need to address the maximum utility of land, he said. “To be able to leverage technologies like [aquaculture] without devoting our entire land to agriculture that is probably one of our key concerns in this agricultural revolution,”​ he added.

Dairy technology

Cainthus has been developing a system to monitor and improve efficiency on dairy farms, said Hunt. The system works by installing a closed-circuit video system assessed by an artificial intelligence.

Cows are identified and watched by the program, he said. “We believe that averages are principally for economists, and we don’t believe that such a thing as an average cow exists,” ​he added.

“So what we do is when the product is installed, for the first week or so, we’re benchmarking all the cows’ individual behavior, and if a cow’s behavior deviates from its normal profile that’s when we send the farmer an alert,” ​he said. “The alerts are what gives the farmer the ability to intervene if something is going wrong.”

However, the process also can identify cows that are more efficient, or that eat less feed while producing the same amount of milk as other members of the herd, said Hunt. “Those are the cows that you want to breed,”​ he added.

“Dairy is also attractive because in dairy we have the golden ratio – feed and water in to milk out – and if you use milking robots or carousel milkers, and you can do individual animal milk data and feed that back into our system, we can give you the exact ratio of feed and water in and milk out,” ​he said. “Our system is the only system in the world that can do that, and we believe that’s the only way to base your decisions on what you do with your cows – who’s getting beefed, who’s getting bred, that sort of thing.”

By establishing a benchmark for each cow, the practice inverts the current system that uses an average expectation, he said. “We’re now farming based on our reaction to the needs of the animal and what the animal is doing, as opposed to us doing our rote farming methodology and the animals reacting to us,”​ he added.

The technology also presents an area where eventual robotic use may be of interest, he said. The system could generate far more data and options for intervention than a farmer would be able to address.

“The positive side of what our product is going to do to labor requirements on farms is while it increases the ability for us to maintain our historical cow husbandry skills, even if it’s a computer that is delivering those skills, the negative is there’s less labor,”​ he said.

The system was initially designed to work with dairy production, because producers are data driven already and the margins make it more affordable, said Hunt.

Looking forward, there could be a similar role for the use of technology in beef production, he said.

“For beef you’re going to have to be able to tie feed and water in to daily weight gain,” ​he said. “We’re already starting to look at doing some beef installs, and we expect that to be commercially ready maybe by early 2018.”

Ag tech trends and considerations  

In the wider realm of development in agricultural technology, there is a split going on between efforts to generate food that is not reliant on natural cycles and work on ecological intensification tools, said Hunt.

Work to move past traditional or natural cycles might include brewing algae heterotrophically, or producing synthetic milk or meat from plants, he said. “That appeals to technologists, because they don’t necessarily know how to grow things in a traditional fashion, so if they can find some way to engineer accelerated or hot-rodded growing practices that really appeals to techie types,”​ he added.

However, efforts to intensify production might include crop-monitoring work to boost yield or improving the efficiencies of milk production, he said. “Insects are a great technology and their protein conversion ratios are so high – they’re definitely going to play a major place in the future market,”​ he added.

While products like synthetic meat may be the future of the market, they still have hurdles to overcome, including bringing down costs and making products scalable, Hunt said. They also have to match the efficiencies of technologies like insects, which can offer up an 80% conversion rate from feed into protein.

“They need to [grow synthetic meat] at a higher rate of efficiency than we can with insects, and that’s before we start selectively breeding insects for becoming more efficient,”​ he said.

“Does it makes sense to grow meat in bio-converters, or to feed our waste to insects and convert that into something that looks like a burger?”​ Hunt said. “Over the next 10 years I think it will make more sense to use insects – but in 2050?”

However, a question to keep in mind when evaluating an agricultural technology startup is ‘is this a good idea,’ he said. “I would never think it was a good idea to heavily process something to simulate something that is readily available now,”​ he added.

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