Future challenges for Animal Production

  • 24 Januarie 2020
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There are more or less 13.0 million head of cattle in South Africa with a well-developed and mature commercial sector and an informal, non-commercial sector with smallholder and subsistence farmers. In South Africa, as in most of the countries in the sub-tropics, livestock production is the only option on about 70% of the agricultural land, since the marginal soils and rainfall do not allow for crop production and the utilisation of green water. In spite of primary beef cattle farming (cow-calf production cycle) being largely extensive in South Africa, more than 75% of cattle slaughtered in the formal sector is finished in feedlots on maize and its by-products.

The beef supply chain has become increasingly vertically integrated. This integration is mainly fuelled by the feedlot industry where most of the large feedlots own their own abattoirs, or at least have some business interest in certain abattoirs. There are some 100 feedlots in South Africa and around 430 abattoirs. In addition, some feedlots have integrated further down the value chain and sell directly to consumers through their own retail outlets. Some abattoirs have also started to integrate vertically towards the wholesale level. There is a huge opportunity too, because on a global level the current animals reach only 60% to 70% of their full genetic potential with huge differences among countries and between farms within countries.

Traditional livestock systems will continue to evolve towards more intensive integrated farming modes that control inputs and outputs to minimise the impact and improve efficiency. This creates a huge responsibility for the livestock sector.

The economy of livestock production and agriculture in general is mainly linear in structure. The circular bio-economy is an emerging model for more sustainable industrial and agricultural development. Circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible. It combines two key sustainability concepts.

Firstly, it involves using more renewable and bio-based resources for value-added products, like food, energy, chemicals and materials, by utilising organic waste streams like crop residues and manures, which can remain within the agricultural system. Biodegradable products are returned to the environment and they thereby re-enter the nutrient cycle. Secondly, it keeps those sustainable materials and products in use longer through sharing, re-using, remanufacturing and recycling – instead of throwing them away after a single or limited use. Circular economy is the road to achieve the harmonious development between economy and environment.

Animal production will have to adapt to take part in the benefits of productivity, profitability and sustainability of a circular economy.

Improving the efficiency of animals will allow the reduction of resource use and will also contribute to the reduction of environmental impact. The FCR (feed conversion ratio) has already significantly decreased in the past years through successful breeding and increasing the energy concentration of the diets. But today, FCR needs to go a step further when livestock have to be fed rations with lower or more variable energy (and protein) concentration. More than 90% of feed used for beef production is inedible by humans, so cattle make a net positive contribution to protein balances.

Animal health and resilience (including fertility) also play a crucial role in resource efficiency. This also renews the challenge for animal breeding, in order to identify new and reliable indicators of resource efficiency, appropriate genotypes, phenotypes and indicator traits, some potential trade-offs between FCR and other phenotypes that may alter long-term selection strategies to improve lifetime efficiency. Attention should be given to the adaptation of animals to new environmental conditions such as new feed sources and varying climate conditions.

Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) and related technologies have huge potential to achieve a more efficient use of resources and “smart” livestock farming. Thanks to new sensor technologies integrated in monitoring systems, farmers and service providers will be able to continuously and automatically collect and process the information needed to manage production efficiency and product quality. The technology is objective, automated, continuous, captures the responses of animals and provides interpretation of huge amounts of data. This will be providing useful information for making advantageous decisions, while reducing farm labour requirements. There are challenges to make data collected from PLF devices, a reliable and validated source of information.

The completion of genome sequences and high-density analytical tools to map genetic markers, allows for whole-genome selection programmes based on linkage disequilibrium for a wide spectrum of traits, simultaneously. In turn, it will be possible to redefine genetic prediction based on allele sharing, rather than pedigree relationships and to make breeding value predictions early in the life of the peak sire.

Alleles are pairs or series of genes on a chromosome that determine the hereditary characteristics. An example of an allele is the gene that determines hair colour. Selection will be applied to a much wider range of traits, including those that are directed towards environmental or adaptive outcomes. In parallel, reproductive technologies will continue to advance to allow acceleration of genetic selection, probably including recombination in vitro. Transgenesis and/or mutagenesis will be applied to introduce new genetic variation or desired phenotypes.

Animal manure is an important source of N and P for crop production and organic matter contributing to soil fertility. In intensive livestock production systems, however, it is often seen as a residual burden rather than a valuable resource and there are significant losses. For many soils in South Africa, the main fertility problem is a deficiency of P and N. Effective manure management can improve resource efficiency by using manure as a valuable resource. In particular, the re-use of N and P offers tremendous opportunities for closing the nutrient cycles, increases resource efficiency, restricts pollution and eutrophication of ground waters and soils.

The steady increase in antimicrobial resistance (antibiotics) is a major threat in terms of public health and is a pressing economic issue. Very few antibiotics have been developed in recent decades or are expected in the near future. In livestock farming, there is a need to reduce the use of antibiotics, biocides and synthetic pesticides and optimise dosages and administration for therapy, control and prevention.

This must be done without compromising public and animal health and welfare to reduce the risk of resistance, especially for critical antibiotics (essential to treat certain human bacterial diseases). Farmers in the Netherlands are using 55% less antibiotics today than in 2009. It comes from a combination of good nutrition and management, but it started with a decision not to turn to chemicals for answers.

The rapid penetration of these new technologies and practices will provide a further layer of sophistication of farm work and new strategies in animal production. The challenge for the next 30 years is to increase the productivity of major livestock species to address the food requirements of the world, while at the same time minimising the environmental impact and keeping animal production sustainable.