IN 2015, the northern beef industry operates much as it did in 1985. Roll forward another 30 years, though, and it’s likely that the tools and techniques of beef production will look very different.

There’s two reasons for accelerated change. One is pressure on costs of production. As many producers have learned over the past few years, the margins in beef have become so slender as to be often invisible. No political magic is going to change global market forces: the only way stretch those margins again is to produce more beef for less.

“No political magic is going to change global market forces”The second reason is the plummeting cost of technology. The beef industry doesn’t have to pay for the development of cutting-edge technology: that’s being done willingly by the world’s consumers. Even in Africa, consumers are supporting the development of smartphone and other communications technologies that eventually make their way into drones, telemetry devices and other tools of a high-tech future.

The need for greater production efficiency, and the falling cost of technology even as technology’s capabilities climb rapidly, means that the future of beef production will be intertwined with technology. We don’t have to wait to see what that looks like: it’s already here.

Genetic tools have been available for years, yet remain underused in the north.

Between 1980-2010, the milk production of Australia’s dairy herd doubled because of a tight focus on genetic gain using tools like estimated breeding values (EBVs). Angus, the beef breed that has placed the most emphasis on using genetic tools, calculates that the breed’s best bulls are now worth $200 per progeny more than its worst.

That sort of data is lacking across northern-adapted breeds, leaving blank large areas of understanding about the breed’s capabilities. Meanwhile, southern breeds are now pushing into genomics, a science that promises the ability to design an animal for different production systems and environments through its DNA.

If there is scope for genetically crafting more productive animals, telemetry offers the prospect of managing them more efficiently.

At the University of New England’s Kirby research farm, the Precision Agriculture Research Group is demonstrating how layering information from animals over information about the terrain can deliver new ways of understanding behaviour.

Information from special ear tags beamed across a wireless network can build up a picture of the patterns in which animals move – when and where they are grazing, the times of day they are active.

Layered over soil maps, for instance, this information can decipher how animals linger in areas with a certain soil nutrient profile, or avoid other areas. As knowledge accumulates, so does understanding of how terrain and animal behaviour intersect to improve performance.

As animal productivity is lifted by technology, labour costs should come down.

Civil aviation rules are inhibiting the use of unpiloted drones, but when the regulations are sorted out, drones have already shown remarkable capability.

Equipped with the right sensors, these cheap aircraft can monitor water points at a fraction of the cost of a conventional water run.

Sensors are available that enable a drone to detect stock, but not only that: through heat measurement, a drone can detect sick animals and act as a early warning of disease.

They are already being used to detect weeds, and spray them. Their application is only bounded by the capability of the sensors they carry. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International thinks that agriculture could account for 80 percent of all commercial drone use.

Any new technology has to be afforded. The question for northern beef producers is: if it’s not technology that will reverse the decades-long trend toward thinner margins, what will?

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