JAMESTOWN, N.D. - Travis Bell knew exactly how many pounds of feed each pen of cattle in his 1,500 head feedlot in Fordville, N.D., got on Monday, Jan. 20. That wouldn't seem like much of a feat unless you consider that Bell was more than two hours away, in Jamestown at the Precision Ag Summit.
Bell could see exactly how much of each component of his calves' ration his employees had put down, using the Performance Beef app on his phone. The app has been a game changer for Bell's Edgewood Ranch. Unlike in the old days, when mixing feed meant "half a scoop of this and half a scoop of that," Bell could keep track of exactly how much feed each pen got, enabling him to better track profitability. The app also allows him to keep tabs on cattle intake and health.
"Performance Beef has probably been my biggest asset," he said.
He can compare how different cattle perform as well as keeping track of his "true costs" rather than just estimates.
"We're knowing exactly what all of our costs are now versus before it was just pen and paper," he said.
Bell joined North Dakota State University Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist Gerald Stokka and North Dakota Farmers Union vice president Jason McKenney on a panel about precision agriculture in livestock at the ninth annual Precision Ag Summit.
While the Summit typically focuses more on farming than ranching, livestock operators have adopted technological advancements, too, Stokka explained. For instance, he compared development of genetics in cattle - using techniques like artificial insemination and embryo transfer - to development of seed genetics in farming. Both have enabled the industry to move toward more desirable traits.
For Bell, those genetic advancements mean he can use Simmental bulls to breed Angus cows, something that many ranchers avoided in the past due to concerns about pulling calves. He also raises registered Simmental cattle to propagate the genetics he wants to see in cattle.
Besides the genetics and the Performance Beef app, Bell said he also benefits from advancements in feed and medication. He feeds a product with probiotics and ionophores to try to keep cattle healthy and reduce the amount of antibiotics he has to use to treat sick calves.
McKenney, who serves on the board of the North Dakota Livestock Alliance, said the dairy and swine industries also have found many uses for technology in modern operations. From animal identification to heating and cooling and waste management, the industries have used technology not just to improve herds but also to keep animals comfortable and keep operations sustainable, he said.
"A happy cow is a cow that makes the money, or in this case, produces milk," he said.
As much as livestock operators use technology now, Stokka sees future development that could help some of the main problems operations face. He sees even better genetic data, looking at things like cow longevity and resistance to disease. He can see applications in imagery, whether drones or satellite or cameras in remote places, to check cattle on pasture. He can see thermal imaging used to help determine spikes in temperature and respiratory problems, even before cattle show signs of illness. He sees stations in pens or pastures where cameras and scales can give updates on cattle, identified by tracking devices. Some of those things already are in the works, and others don't seem as far-fetched as they once would have.
But can technology revitalize a livestock industry that has seen many people in recent generations leave?
"I'd sure like to think so," Stokka said.