High-tech Future Envisioned for Cattlemen

February 6, 2013 08:14 AM
High-tech Future Envisioned for Cattlemen

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.

Other profound changes may come from cloud sourcing data. If ranchers throughout a region monitored the health of their herd, and fed the data to a central source, it might be possible to predict the outbreak of infectious diseases. Ranchers could even be paid for that information.

Catlett envisioned major changes in how products are manufactured in America. Already people are making products at home or in the garage with 3D assembling. They download open-source hardware plans from the Internet to make a wrench, bricks or even a tractor. Instead of printing out documents, they replace ink cartridges with powered metal or plastic and produce real products.

After one speech, someone in the audience presented Catlett with a 4" wrench that he had made in his hotel room earlier that day. He pointed out that the manufacturers in the audience that day had billions of dollars invested in factories that could become obsolete.

The move toward do-it-yourself manufacturing will benefit the mechanically inclined, like ranchers and farmers. "We are impoverished because we have a whole generation of people who can’t work with their hands," Catlett said. "Now because of smartphones and Kindles, we’ll get it back."

Brandishing his Kindle, Catlett said the day may soon arrive when anyone could make a ration or a steak and potentially disintermediate ranchers.

"We’re babes in the woods," he said. "We’re going to see some changes. We don’t know what they are going to be. But they are going to be weird as hell."

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