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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Out of Ostrich Boom Comes Advanced Livestock Monitoring Technology to Improve Feed Efficiency and Reduce Waste

February 17, 2012 |

Alison Sunstrum already had her own business when she first met the three engineers behind Alberta, Canada-based GrowSafe Systems. They had hit a wall in their research and could not see their way to a commercial product. She offered solutions as a consultant. They ignored all of them, but still Sunstrum says that she was so impressed by what they were doing, she sold her company and bought into theirs.

What captured her attention was the concept of using advanced technology to monitor livestock, improve feed efficiency, and reduce animal waste and emissions, all without disrupting the natural behavior patterns of the animals. “It was a completely paradigm shifting idea and I thought that what they were doing was amazing.” 

Today, Sunstrum is a fully invested owner and the co-CEO along with founding engineer and primary inventor Camiel Huisma. She sees tremendous potential for the GrowSafe technology for large scale and small farms all around both the industrialized and developing world.

To understand the GrowSafe System, one must look back to the company’s beginnings in the ostrich industry. During the 1980s, the ostrich industry was going through a bit of a speculative boom with a single egg purchased at $150 turning into $4000‐$6000 for a single ostrich to $60,000 for a breeding pair. Although potential yields were high, only about 12 percent of eggs survived to the point of resale.

Enter GrowSafe Systems. With high profit margins, the ostrich industry was ripe for testing new technology, no matter how costly. Initially, GrowSafe engineers developed a system of weighing and feeding the chick each time it fed from the trough. It turned out that the system itself appeared to interfere with the feeding behavior of the animals visiting the trough. Like humans, gathering around the water cooler in an office or the snack table at a party, the ostriches utilized the trough as a social setting. Altering the system to accommodate these habits revealed that a each chick visited the trough around 500 times per day, whether to eat or simply socialize with another chick.

These measurements and the future of all GrowSafe Systems hinged on the specialized technology enabling sensors to read multiple radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in close proximity at the same time. This means that the system can collect a variety of data on several animals feeding together simultaneously, enabling the system to collect data without disrupting the feeding pattern of each individual animal.

In time, it became clear that the frequency of visits to the trough correlated to the overall health of the animal. Avian specialists and veterinarians began to see drops in visits to the trough as a sign of coming illness. By responding to these subtle behavioral changes quickly with a simple electrolyte replacement, Sunstrum says ostrich survivability increased 90 percent.

In the end the ostrich industry did not survive, but the GrowSafe Systems technology did. The money made in the ostrich industry enabled the company to reinvest and focus their efforts on the cattle industry. For ten years, GrowSafe sold their technology to researchers while continuing to perfect their data collection systems.

By 1999, the systems were capturing increasingly sophisticated data. However, in order to further their research, the company still needed to find a solution to make their technology commercially viable so as to yield a return on their investment.

The answer came in the form of a feed intake measurement system that could be used in a commercial environment without affecting the animals’ behavior. Sunstrum says they spent five years developing this technology making it robust and reliable enough that it could be used in any production environment, “from the smallest of farms to the largest of farms.” What is exceptional about this system is its ability to measure something called feed efficiency. An efficient animal voluntarily eats less than its peers while gaining the same amount. Sunstrum says that their research revealed that this is a heritable trait and can be genetically passed down.

For ranchers, efficient cows cost less to feed, not because the ranchers impose a strict diet, but because the animals naturally choose to eat less. Sunstrum adds that there are environmental benefits to efficient cattle. Increased efficiency means less waste both in manure and in greenhouse gases. Methane emissions are 21 times more damaging to the atmosphere than CO2 emissions, and cows have long been singled out as a culprit.

Sunstrum sees waste reduction as just one of the sustainable components of GrowSafe Systems. As the world population continues to swell at unprecedented rates, the entire agricultural industry is looking at increasing production 70 percent over the next forty years. Sunstrum says that the industry too often looked to increasing size and intensifying livestock as the definition of profitability and growth. While she recognizes that some intensification is necessary, GrowSafe Systems is mindful of the constraints of the land. “We have to marry both what happens in intensive livestock production with good technology that ensures animal welfare and at the same time ensures profitability.”

Sunstrum sees GrowSafe Systems as being something of a GPS for ranchers, providing up to the minute information about the habits and behaviors of their cattle and highlighting potential roadblocks. Spotting an ill animal early can mean the difference between having to remove that animal from the program permanently and being able to reintegrate it into the program after treatment.

Cowboys that have been raised with animals and are able to spot an ill animal are becoming increasingly hard to come by, and Sunstrum says that GrowSafe’s research has proved that their results are often inconsistent. She believes that coupling skilled cowboys with GrowSafe technology is much more effective.

While the GrowSafe System can do many things automatically, even administer vitamins, minerals, and medications; Sunstrum says there will always be need for the expert eye of the cowboy. The system cannot register if an animal has been hurt. It may eventually see a pain response, but a cowboy will see it right away. “While your skill level in your cowboy may decrease, and you many not need as much labour, you’re always going to need cowboys.”

This year, GrowSafe Systems is finalizing field validation of sickness troughs in feedlots. So far, it appears that this system can catch illnesses up to four days before any the animals show any outwardly visible symptoms. Over the next five years, Sunstrum says that the focus will be on validating that using this technology in a pasture setting makes sense. Currently, this technology is being tested with pasture-raised cattle at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Oklahoma. While the animals feed on pasture grasses, the system is able to take measurements whenever the cattle comes to drink or to receive minerals or supplements.

“We’re not focused on making a great deal of money at this stage of the game. We’re focused on getting our technology used,” says Sunstrum. The key is making the system simple to use and affordable. The business is scaled through research partnerships. Sunstrum says that the system is employed in most major agricultural universities in the United States and Canada. Additional systems have been installed in the European Union, Brazil, and Australia. The company is looking into moving into systems for different species and has started working with dairy and sheep. In the long term, Sunstrum says, “We hope to see our technology on every farm. We are quite serious about that.”

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