Managing Biosecurity in the Livestock Industry

If you thought taking care of a pet was a big responsibility, try caring for thousands of animals as if your livelihood depended on it. It’s what livestock farmers do every day across the globe, and it’s an occupation that’s coming under increased pressure from all angles. A decrease in demand for dairy and meat, large corporations that undercut on price due to economies of scale, and an ever-increasing number of rules and regulations all make it very difficult to make a living raising livestock. The last thing livestock farmers need to worry about is having a disease wipe out their herd or put them in a position of liability when they can’t trace the origins of a biosecurity problem. Swine flu, bird flu, mad cow disease, they’re all communicable diseases that need to be controlled at a tactical level before they can cause meaningful damage. And one New Zealand tech company is working on a way to do just that.

About OnSide

Click for company websiteFounded in 2015, New Zealand tech company OnSide has taken in over $3 million in funding to develop a platform that provides transparency around who is doing what on farms. The solution consists of a cloud-based offering which includes apps or an electronic kiosk that allow farmers to track the movements of people who visit their properties for any number of reasons. Sounds simple, but spend some time on a farm and you’ll see just how much really goes on. With OnSide, people can instantly check-in, notify property managers, and record where their team is, in real time. The obvious use cases for such a solution include the usual health and safety stuff on a farm, and they aren’t the first company to offer such a solution. What really starts to get interesting is when you take a look under the hood and see how the company is using the solution to improve biosecurity.

The Biosecurity Use Case

We sat down to talk with Ryan Higgs, CEO of OnSide, about how the product is being used for applications in biosecurity. Dr. Higgs explained, there are approximately 300,000 rural properties in New Zealand which are linked by an estimated 100,000,000 annual connections (movements from property to property). The connections lead to the construction of a giant interconnected network, and while this connectedness has improved business efficiency, disease too, has a more effective mechanism through which to spread.

OnSide has a range of products that help connect people that manage rural properties with their contractors and visitors. For example, maybe you have a company like LIC that has people out in the field collecting milk samples from hundreds of dairy farms a week. When these sample collectors start using OnSide, it automatically sends text messages to property managers letting them know when the person arrives and leaves. Suddenly, property managers start seeing the usefulness of the solution and invite other vendors to use OnSide, and the product begins spreading in a viral manner. The data generated provide the opportunity for what happens next.

In our previous piece on How New Zealand’s Dairy Industry Innovates, we remarked at what a unique situation the country is in. It’s a developed market that sits on a relatively small number of islands in the middle of nowhere. Since it’s the only country in the world where farmers aren’t granted subsidies, everyone is used to innovation playing a key role in improving operations. Moreover, everyone seems willing to participate in broader initiatives that result in improvements that can only be realized when everyone plays ball. A good example of this would be all the big data that LIC collects from 93.5% of New Zealand’s national herd. In the case of OnSide, they’re creating a biosecurity solution unlike anything that’s been tried before anywhere else.

Analyzing How Disease Spreads

In order to understand the spread of communicable diseases, you first need to map the potential pathways in which they can spread through the country into a network. Networks consist of nodes and connections. In the context of the New Zealand farming sector, properties represent ‘nodes’ and the movements of people, vehicles, animals or plant material represent ‘connections’ (pathways).

When someone uses the OnSide solution, an automatic prompt is sent when the person crosses a farm boundary – a geofence if you will – to remind them to check-in to the property. The check-in event is captured, along with other information, and used to construct the network of pathways.  Any third party data could also feed into OnSide’s network – the cow collars that are being developed by Halter for example. When you overlay this network on a map of New Zealand you get something that looks like this:

An OnSide connection network
Credit: OnSide

His team then uses a modelling approach based on a family of network analysis models known as influence maximization algorithms. The algorithms can be used to: 1) predict the infection risk of any given property and; 2) to identify properties that are highly “influential” in the way they are connected within the network. The most influential properties would have the largest impact on the spread of the disease if they were to become infected. These two features of the model can be exploited to direct disease testing and response activity in a lightning-quick way in the case of an outbreak to protect the entire sector. The key features of OnSide’s system include:

  • Optimal monitoring – Identify properties to constantly monitor for potential incursions
  • Optimal response – React to the detection of disease, directing resources to optimize containment
  • Infection prediction – Predict properties most likely to be infected during an outbreak
  • Source detection – Trace back to where an incursion most likely began

Dr. Higgs used the example of tuberculosis. Every year, 3,000,000 animals are tested for TB which costs the country millions of dollars. Inspectors go around to farms testing for this disease. It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack. Using some very cool data visualization software, Dr. Higgs showed us the spread of TB risk among farms in the South Island of New Zealand in real time.

The software was used to identify the 10 most influential farms which if tested and are found to be negative, half the TB risk in the entire Island would be removed. Typical numbers in other real-world applications have shown ~1-2% of properties monitored reduces the spread of disease by 80-90%. Imagine having 90% more resources that can then be focused on eradication as opposed to simply managing to a certain tolerance level.

It’s only a matter of time before livestock farmers are required to track movements as part of a broader industry push towards transparency and traceability.

The Bigger Picture

While OnSide addresses the biosecurity problem at a tactical level, some of the world’s largest food producers are addressing the problem at a much higher level using technologies like blockchain. Some of the world’s biggest food producers like Bunge, Cargill, Glencore Agriculture, and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) recently formed a consortium called Covantis which is attempting to “modernize global trade operations” using blockchain technology. These initiatives are all about transparency and traceability. Every step of the food procurement process will now be tracked and recorded. And it’s not just about biosecurity. Think about how much more efficient the food supply chain can become if everything is being tracked at a granular level. An initiative like Covantis will let some of the world’s biggest food businesses strong arm producers into using their solution. At some point, traceability will be implemented at a tactical level to show the movement of people, livestock, and agricultural products for end-to-end traceability. That’s where solutions like OnSide can easily be integrated into the broader platforms without having to reinvent the wheel.

Conclusion

As the global population continues to grow, food security is a real problem. In emerging markets, up to 30% of food is wasted somewhere in the supply chain. In developed markets, that number may be far less, but it could still stand to be improved. Having to cull your entire lot of chickens or pigs because of some new influenza strain is a form of food waste. Having livestock that are drench-resistant and produce 14% less meat as a result is another form of food waste. These are problems that OnSide can help solve. Given they happen to be located in one of the most innovative countries in the world when it comes to agtech bodes well for the future of this very interesting biosecurity startup.

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