Steak lovers worldwide pay more than $300 billion for prime cuts of beef each year, yet many cattle farmers worry about their future incomes, as looming tax penalties for greenhouse gas emissions and inconsistent quality threaten to eat away their profits.
In Ireland, one group thinks data around cattle’s DNA might help them take both those challenges head-on.
“Our #1 priority is to make cattle farmers profitable by helping them consistently produce the best tasting and most eco-friendly meat and dairy products on the market,” says Karl O’Connell, integration manager at the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation.
As a nonprofit operating in Ireland since the late 1990s, ICBF manages one of the world’s largest integrated livestock databases, sourced from Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, milking co-ops, veterinarians, and tens of thousands of the country’s cattle breeders and processors. The database now contains more than 100 million animal data records, of which 2 million include animal genotypes.
O’Connell says improving “genetic gain,” a practice in which cows are selectively bred for desired traits, can aid cattle farmers by predicting the type of environment, vet care, feed, and genomic profiles that not only result in more flavorful, tender, and juicy meat, but also produce less methane.
“It’s easy to think that the only way farmers can reduce GHG emissions is by reducing the size of their herds,” O’Connell quips. “But that’s just not true.” By breeding smaller cows, or those with fewer methane-producing microbes in their stomachs, farmers’ herds will literally belch less gas.
‘Win-Win’ for the Environment and Farmers
Today there are roughly 1.5 billion cattle grazing the world’s pastures, each belching and pooping about 250 pounds of methane emissions every year. (The belching, surprisingly, produces 90% or more of the methane.) Through ICBFs selective breeding program, O’Connell believes it can help cut these emissions through a combination of genetic testing and predictive analytics.
“Our breeding program doesn’t just help to protect the environment, it also helps protect farmer incomes,” he says. With proposed “anti-flatulence” legislation targeted at beef and dairy producers, cattle farmers from Copenhagen to California fear that a tax burden of hundreds of dollars per cow could potentially reduce their incomes by tens of thousands of dollars each year—a burden many farmers say could cripple the sector.
The lifeblood of ICBFs selective breeding program is its database, which runs on Oracle Exadata and captures all sorts of data—from handwritten notes, call center logs, and text messages, to data from its web portal and third-party systems, which is pulled in through APIs. Each year, ICBF tracks more than 100,000 herds, 2 million births, 7 million movements, 2 million slaughters, and 700,000 inseminations. “This isn’t data warehousing,” says O’Connell, “we’re using all of this data all the time.”
While ICBF has deep integrations between its database and a broad network of farmers and industry organizations, it has no contact with consumers. This poses a problem, because understanding meat-eating quality helps farmers price their beef and then market it to wholesalers and retailers. “But taste data is very difficult, and often very expensive, to capture,” O’Connell says, noting that most taste testers are professionals who charge high fees for their opinions.
On the flip side, consumers increasingly want more information from producers about where their meat comes from, when it was processed, and how it got to their grocery store.
Blockchain and Beef
In a “proof-of-value” pilot, unveiled at Oracle OpenWorld in September, ICBF and its IT partner, Version1 are testing Oracle Blockchain Platform to trace individual cuts of meat back to the cows from which they came, and then share that data (through QR codes, mobile apps, and smartphones) with consumers in exchange for their feedback about the taste.
“Sharing its vast knowledgebase with the public is just the tip of the iceberg of what blockchain can do,” Version1 innovation lead John Bolger says. “ICBF could also use blockchain to collect consumer feedback, use that feedback to enhance its data models, and ultimately help cattle farmers make more profitable choices when it comes to breeding, feeding, and pricing.”
In addition to Oracle technology, ICBF is also writing custom code in R, using mixed-model equations, and creating machine-learning algorithms that can evaluate the range of traits that lead to superior genetics in cattle. Then, the models assign an economic value to those traits, which ultimately helps farmers determine the overall profitability of their herds.
“Our research shows that smaller beef cows release far less methane, and still fetch a premium if their genetic mix produces superior-quality beef,” says Ross Evans, head of ICBFs genetic evaluations group. With statistical and optimization models, Evans’ 10-person team looks for those sweet spots between the size of the cow and the volume of high-quality meat it can produce: “We’re looking for the most economical ways to protect the environment, feed 9 billion people, while making all of that profitable for the farmer.”
Still, the size of the cow, the amount of methane it emits, and the meat it produces are only some of the components of the overall value equation, says Andrew Cromie, technical director for ICBF. “We’re also looking at how quickly those cows are finished and taken to market,” he says. By isolating genotypes that determine fast-growing traits, Cromie claims he is helping farmers get their cattle to market 100 days faster than the average 700 days.
Cromie is also creating optimization models for the blockchain pilot, using the animal’s DNA, genotype, age at the time of slaughter, the conformation of its carcass, and marbling score, giving consumers insight into exactly what they’re purchasing.
“This pilot is all about understanding the specific characteristics that give consumers confidence in purchasing meat while they’re at the grocery store,” he says. “And we can provide very strong scientific data about those key attributes, which are going to be important to consumers, and the sector, in the future.”