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High-tech Future Envisioned for Cattlemen

February 6, 2013
By: Boyce Thompson, Editorial Director google + 
Lowell Catlett, New Mexico State University ag economist  

Hand-held devices may soon be used to gauge animal health

The one thing that futurist Lowell Catlett can predict with certainty is, as the world grows more prosperous, people will be eating more beef.

The agricultural economist from New Mexico State University said that 1 billion people throughout the world have moved into the middle class during the last decade. "What’s the first thing they want?" Catlett asked the audience, waiting to get the response he wanted. "That’s right. Beef."

Only 1 billion of the 7 billion people living on the planet "live a pretty good life and can ask, ‘Can you make it organic? Can you make it free range?’" he said. "The rest aren’t as picky; they will eat all the beef they can afford or stomach. Demand for beef has no known bounds."

Catlett made several more highly educated guesses about what the future might hold for agriculture and farming. He envisioned a day when ranchers would be doing veterinary diagnostics from a cell phone, making manufactured products from future-generation printers, and raising their cattle according to new herding practices.

But the problem with predicting the future, Catlett made clear, is that no one is really sure what innovations may develop.

"Twenty years ago, when [the Cattlemen’s College] started, we didn’t talk about global warming, carbon sequestration or $8 corn," Catlett said. "No telling what we’ll talk about 20 years from now."

Catlett has a pretty good idea that farmers backgrounding dairy steers will treat them differently—raising them in herds rather than isolation huts, so they develop greater immunity. He told the story of one ranch that raised 10 newborn males in a herd with no medical expenses and no death loss.

Behavioral scientists are just beginning to understand how social connections influence the health and well-being of humans, Catlett said. One piece of recent research showed that humans who live with rich and deep social connections are 25% less likely to get diseases than people who live in isolation. "We’re going to start looking at whole units of animals," he said. "It will be phenomenal, the strides that we’ll make."

Smartphones are going to dramatically change medical diagnostics, Catlett predicted. Already they are being outfitted with molecular lenses so that you can do blood tests. "They are trying to get that to health workers around the world as quickly as possible," he said. "That will be used in veterinary medicine."

Other applications will allow you to take your blood pressure or tell whether a skin blemish is cancerous. Soon you may be able to take a picture of your cow’s eye and diagnose its condition. "This is going to change animal health the likes of which you can only dream about," Catlett said.

Animals themselves may be providing more health diagnosis. One recent experiment demonstrated that Labrador Retrievers, with one sniff of your breath, can tell whether the polyps in your colon are benign or cancerous. Faced with the prospect of a colonoscopy, Catlett said he would gladly let a Lab smell his breath.

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