For the past 150 years, feedlot monitoring has been the responsibility of a select few employees, who visually gauge the amount of feed in concrete troughs, called bunks. However, this visual inspection by humans is inherently imprecise, subjective, and inconsistent, varying from person to person and from day to day, depending on their focus, alertness, and other factors. When faulty estimates cause animals to eat too much or too little one day, they will get off their optimal growth curve or even become ill and take days to recover.
Automation can greatly improve the accuracy and consistency of these volume estimates, as well as free up employees for other duties. However, until recently, no one had been able to build an effective and reliable feed automation system.
Feedlots are carefully engineered. As the animals arrive, they are sorted by breed, mass, age, etc., and put into hundreds of pens. Their diets are prescribed, fed, and monitored for up to 300 days, depending on the beef’s market grade. Once each animal is deemed to be of the required quality, it is sent to an abattoir for processing, then to a customer.
The livestock have a feed allocation once per day, based on their intake behavior. To monitor it, a feedlot employee drives up and down a road, along hundreds of pens, looks out the window at the bunks, and visually estimates the amount of feed remaining. If the animals are leaving feed in the bunks, the amount distributed is trimmed back; conversely, if they are cleaning it up, the amount is increased.
These measurements need to be taken, normally, at least four times a day, to make sure that every pen of livestock is being fed and that none of them have run out. This is especially important overnight, when many sites are not staffed 24/7, because the peak times of consumption are dusk and dawn.
Manabotix Pty. Ltd., a company founded in the fall of 2016 by its managing director Dr. Stuart McCarthy, a mechatronics engineer, has been helping the Australian agricultural sector by providing bespoke, novel technology to help solve site productivity problems. The company has focused mostly on cattle in feedlots, using lidar scanning and other vision or perception technologies, as well as satellite-based positioning and artificial intelligence.