There is no doubt dairy farming punches well above its weight in terms of innovation and technology, but The Stockman, from Herd Advance, is about to propel the beef industry into a new era, with its ability to significantly increase levels of efficiency, improve animal welfare and reduce labour requirements.

The brain child of Aberdeenshire farmer, Murdoch Duncan from Insch and business co-founder Jilly Grant, an SRUC business and agriculture lecturer, The Stockman brings together practical hardware and precision data software that when paired with its cutting-edge App lets farmers monitor real-time statistics and status of their herd on-the-go from a smartphone.

Driven by an animal's need to drink several times a day, the system allows for simultaneous, weighing as the animal stands on a weigh plate, water intake recording and body temperature monitoring via thermal imaging. This data collection of the animal’s vital statistics, provides an immediate insight into the health of the animal, with any increase in body temperature possibly indicating the early onset of disease, such as pneumonia.

Add to that its ability to allow the user to automatically sort animals without the need for handling and stress levels are significantly reduced. Animals never have to be poked, prodded or chased into separate pens as the system can independently move individuals from one pen to another, reducing the number of 'man' hours required on a beef unit, but also and more importantly, improving safety levels.

Depending on pen size, this unique, digitally controlled system can comfortably monitor up to 80 animals 24/7. By using multiple criteria choices, either decided by the farmer and applied through The Stockman App, or by the systems own smart alerting abilities, it will over a period of time as the animals come in to drink, automatically select any animal that fits the chosen criteria and exit them via The Stockman into the preferred pen.

For example, it can select by finishing weights; store cattle for transportation to auction mart; breeding heifers and even multiple criteria such as weaning cows and calves, and grouping into weight groups for feed management or cows by PD dates once scanned.

Jilly said the farm had already used the system to successfully to wean calves from their mothers, draw cattle for market based on a specific weight criteria selected and more generally to monitor the performance and health of their animals.

“One of the key issues in our industry, and in particular in working with livestock, is the lack of available labour and people who are willing to work with livestock and The Stockman supports and fills that labour gap," said Jilly.

"Instead of having two or three people to pull cattle out to go to the auction mart, you put your criteria into the system and it sheds the cattle off into your chosen pen without stress to the cattle or handler.”

A silver award winner at this year's Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland's (RHASS) technical innovation awards, the system aims to help farmers both large and small scale, to safely monitor and handle cattle through digital agri-technology.

Murdoch added: "There are many effective weighing systems available to us as beef farmers but many are still reliant on both manual weighing and data entry. I have long thought there was a huge need for an integrated beef system that could automate performance and health monitoring, helping to reduce labour and improve safety levels on farm.

"Individual animals are monitored every time they go to drink and can be separated from the main group as required without any human intervention. We are currently testing the addition of a thermal camera that can record an animal's body temperature, this data along with the combination of weight and water intake can support The Stockman in alerting potential health problems before clinical signs are present, giving the farmer that early intervention time to treat any disease issue, limiting the damage to the animal and the whole group," he said.

“We have focused and spent a lot of time through the systems development on the cattle’s behaviour with it and in doing so have had various re-designs to get the best performance and safety from the system to match the needs of the animal. One of our greatest concerns at the start, was whether the cattle would happily use the machine – little did we know the bigger problem was actually going to be getting them out of it!”

Herd Advance has observed animal behaviour to such an extent that the duo has also developed a training mode for the system, where cattle that are a little more nervous when first entering, undergo a couple of days training first.

"Most cattle smell the water and will go in to drink no problem, but for the handful that are more nervous in nature, we have a training mode where The Stockman’s sliding water trough starts at the entry gate, still collecting the animals identification, water intake and temperature thereby reassuring the farmer that the animals are getting enough water," said Murdoch.

"From here the trough can be moved back over a couple of days to the fixed position where the cattle then enter the full system with weight monitoring now collected without stress to the animal. We believe this addition to the process further supports our aim to reduce stress for both animal and farmer in monitoring their animals closely.”

Initially, the plan was to launch The Stockman at the Royal Highland Show, but the Covid-19 pandemic stopped that in its tracks. However, on the plus side, the business has been able to fine-tune their revolutionary design and further test and develop the system, in order to be market ready for next year's Ingliston event.

Murdoch and Jilly, co-founders of Herd Advance, aim to trial The Stockman in 2021 across varying types of beef enterprises and are inviting farmers with interest in the technology to contact them to discuss demonstration opportunities.

The Stockman capabilities fit well with the recently announced Sustainable Agriculture Capital Grant Scheme (SACGS) which provides grant funding for farmers and crofters to purchase specific items of agricultural equipment that deliver effectiveness in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well supporting sustainable farming, by improving land and livestock management.

Jilly said she hoped the system would help give farmers access to data to endorse their environmental credentials and increase efficiencies to aid planning within the beef supply chain to help meet consumer demands. “The likes of the Sustainable Agriculture Capital Grant Scheme would be an excellent way for farmers to support their purchase of The Stockman as ‘Auto Cattle Weighing Equipment’ and we would welcome farmers to contact us to discuss potential pre-orders of the system and becoming trial farms.”

“The carbon footprint and sustainability of the beef sector is a critical issue, and we as a sector are going to have to be able to prove ourselves and be accountable. The monitoring and the individual performance data we can gain from The Stockman can go some way in supporting that,” concluded Jilly.