Emerging technologies and the increasing availability of data can have an enormous and positive effect on feed safety, feed quality and animal health. At the same time, the feed producing industry should be wary of a big data overkill.

Leo den Hartog of Nutreco and Johan den Hartog of GMP+ International (not related) about the challenges and opportunities of big data in the feed industry.

What do programmers, designers and user interface specialists have to do with pig production?

Well, these previously unrelated worlds crossed paths during a hackathon organised by animal nutrition company Nutreco in the Netherlands last year. Participants competed in a 48-hour challenge to come up with apps, websites or other smart devices that would benefit the pig production industry by sharing and integrating data from different stakeholders.


A positive impact

One of the initiators of this hackathon was Professor Dr Leo den Hartog, ‎Director R&D at Trouw Nutrition (a Nutreco company), and a big proponent of exploring the opportunities of new technologies in the feed sector.

"Precision Livestock Farming (PLF), feed evaluation, rapid diagnostics, and big data will have a huge impact on animal production in the years and decades ahead. It would be foolish to neglect those developments, or to think they will not affect us. They will."

"And that can both be positive or negative," adds Johan den Hartog, Managing Director at GMP+ International, owner of the world"s largest feed certification scheme.

"If companies keep doing what they are doing, they will definitely miss the boat. In that case, advanced technology can very well have a negative impact. But if you start exploring and using the emerging possibilities in tech, it can be extremely positive for your business: safety-wise, quality-wise and production-wise."

Developments like Precision Livestock Farming enable farmers to use advanced innovations to optimise animal production. Sensors on animals can provide farmers with accurate and realtime information about each animal"s feed and water intake, behavior, psychology, fertility and overall health. They give insight in not just individual animals, but in the entire flock as well. This information ensures that farmers would be able to intervene at an early stage and can result in, for example, a reduced need for antibiotics. For crop producers, smart devices like rapid diagnostics or biochips can give them useful data about crop and soil status.


New insights

One of the great benefits of new technologies in the feed and food producing chains, is that automated data collection gives new insights to both the individual farmer and the entire chain.

Information can easily be shared. For example, NIR (near infrared) analysers can detect variation in protein content in soybeans, or lysine levels in wheat samples. "Analysis results of tens of thousands of farmers worldwide, provides the industry with a goldmine of information," says Leo den Hartog.

He is enthusiastic about the Mycomaster, a device that detects the six most commonly encountered mycotoxins. "According to FAO, a quarter of food crops worldwide are contaminated with mycotoxins, yet this is not always visible from the outside. And even if crops have molds, it doesn"t necessarily mean they are contaminated. This device gives farmers a quick answer and advice. And what"s more, a global network of Mycomasters ensures a large database of samples, and thus more precise results on mycotoxin analysis."


Data ownership

But who owns all that data? Johan den Hartog thinks it"s the individual companies. "But," he emphasises, "for the best possible results, data should be shared. Although we should be extremely careful in deciding what data that should be."

His stance fits GMP+ International"s approach to feed safety. Sharing knowledge throughout the chain for years has been one of the core components of the company"s worldwide feed safety scheme. Johan den Hartog believes the costs and benefits of emerging technology should be shared as well. "We need a sector-wide approach."

Nutreco is leading by example. Not only does Nutreco research technologies for more accurate nutritional management to secure feed quality and to improve performance and profitability, it also engages the next generation. Nutreco is inviting innovative start-ups to take part in its annual Feed Tech Challenge.

Last year, 44 start-ups with people from 24 different nationalities participated in the two-day event. Several finalists ended up research collaborations and partnerships with Nutreco and the winner got a unique prize: a scientific on-farm validation trial at one of the Nutreco"s research centers.


The risk of data overkill

All parties benefit from promising new technologies: animals live better lives, their performance improves, farmers and other companies along the chain increase their output and profitability, and the final consumer gets quality food.

According to Leo den Hartog, companies shouldn"t worry too much about machines fundamentally changing their way of working. Devices support, they don"t replace. "Technology can be used to detect, but when they do, we need people to act."

He does see a risk though in gathering too much data. "Overkill is definitely a risk," he says. "We must define what information really makes a difference and how we combine data to create useful information. It all starts with the goal. The biggest mistake we can make is randomly gathering all kinds of information and then drawing wrong conclusions."

Johan den Hartog, "In the end, data is just data. What we need is useful information."

by Naomie Matil, Communications Specialist, GMP+ International, Netherlands

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