The future sustainability of the UK beef sector is under real pressure, according to two Aberdeenshire beef farmers, who have come up with a novel approach to improving herd health. Murdoch Duncan and Jilly Grant established Herd Advance in 2019, with the aim of giving beef farmers an innovative new digital approach to monitoring their beef herds and acting on any worrying signs.

“We have some of the strongest global meat brands here in Scotland, and our animal welfare and quality standards are world-leading. However, our farmers face a constant struggle to improve efficiencies and profitability in the face of constant downward price pressure on the products they supply. Market uncertainties over Brexit are also a concern,” says Grant.

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Herd Advance’s main product is Stockman, which is about to go into live beta testing on a number of Scottish farms. It brings together practical hardware, including a weighing bed that automatically measures an animal’s weight as it steps onto the platform in order to drink, and temperature sensors that record the animal’s temperature. The amount of water the animal is taking on is also automatically noted.

Each animal is tagged with a radio frequency tag that ensures it is uniquely identified and the system automatically maintains a comprehensive record on each animal. The farmer has an app that both shows him or her the information being collected on the herd and allows them to interact with the system.

Grant explains that as well as collecting critical data on herd health, Stockman can independently move animals from one pen to another. This can be done either through the app or through the system’s own ‘smart-alerting’ capabilities.

“Take, for example, what might happen when the system registers that an animal is running a temperature at a level that is concerning. Stockman can automatically move that animal in a stress-free manner to another pen, or it can alert the farmer, via the app, to the fact that a problem exists,” Grant says.

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She points out that the three measures Stockman takes, namely an animal’s weight, water intake and temperature, correlate strongly with the animal’s state of health. This provides the farmer with an excellent set of tools to ensure smoother herd management and the related decision-making.

“One of the great things about Stockman is that it provides a reliable record of the animals weight, day by day, without any of the stress that is usually associated with weighing an animal,” she explains. The cows come onto the Stockman platform voluntarily, whenever they want a drink of water, and there is no stress involved.

“When an animal is stressed, this can impact its growth, and that in turn has a deleterious effect on overall profitability. And because the farmer is getting regular updates on an animal’s state of health, they can detect any health isues or concerns at a really early stage. Early treatment is always best and can have a very positive impact on farm performance,” she notes.

Another point is that labour is hard to come by when it comes to beef farming. Stockman’s ability to automate herd and individual animal movements can be a huge labour saving device for farmers.

“The technical expertise behind our system came largely from Murdoch Duncan, supported by our technical partners. As farmers, we couldn’t find any system out there on the market that delivered what we needed in order to manage our farms efficiently.There were lots of systems that did part of the job, but nothing that offered a comprehensive solution. We’ve had a tremendous reaction to Stockman from local farmers and we are looking forward to the demonstration roll out in the months ahead,” Grant concludes.

For more information visit www.herdadvance.co.uk

This article appeared in The Herald COP26 report on the sustainable food sector in Scotland