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Big Data, Big Ideas: FAI Symposium Addresses Future of Animal Agriculture

Stephanie Ward in front of a projection screen
Stephanie Ward welcomes attendees to the symposium.

Last week, NC State’s Centennial Campus, known for its concentration of technology-focused university-industry partnerships, was the site of an event focused on bringing technology to the world’s farms.

The first International Symposium on Precision Systems and Data Analysis in Animal Agriculture, hosted by the NC State Food Animal Initiative, brought data scientists and animal scientists (and those pioneering their intersections) together at the StateView Hotel.

With 13 speakers and over 90 attendees, the symposium showcased the ideas and technology that will help food animal producers solve the challenges presented by a growing world population.

Over two days, September 9 and 10, attendees heard from producers, industry representatives and university researchers.

Jeffrey Bewley of Alltech, Inc. opened the symposium, emphasizing the need for data that leads to action. That theme ran through both days of presentations.

Jeffrey Bewley speaking
Jeffrey Bewley of Alltech opened the symposium.

Multiple speakers, including Cheryl Day of NEDAP and Natalie Wisniewski of Profusa Tech, echoed that need. Wisniewski encouraged everyone to consider how they’d answer the question, “What can [you] do with the data?”.

What can [you] do with the data?

Some of the presenters spoke directly from their experience using data and precision instruments in animal agriculture, but the symposium gave a platform to multiple perspectives.

Wisniewski, for example, works primarily in implantable and wearable sensors for humans. She discussed how those same sensors might be adapted for animal use.

Similarly, David Roberts of the NC State Department of Computer Science presented his work with dogs trained to work in emergency response and as service animals. While his lab focuses on animal behavior and data analysis, the potential for agricultural applications was clear to symposium attendees. Understanding and assessing animal behavior could lead to further improvements in animal welfare and help managers discover and treat injuries and illnesses sooner and more effectively.

Roberts’ presentation was understandably exciting; he shared video of puppies using the tech designed by his lab. Other speakers were just as engaging, but admitted their subject was a little less cute than puppies.

Dave Fernandez of DFSTAAT talked about MUD: “mundane, unexciting data.” He introduced two complementary points: gather data well and collect needed data. Fernandez emphasizes that if both of these principles guide research, it’ll find solutions (and problems) that might otherwise be missed.

Between all the presentations, attendees shared meals and connected at an evening reception. Their enthusiasm on the second day highlighted how useful they found the first day of talks.

Andrew Lenkaitis opened day two with a discussion of the specifics of robotic milking parlors. Focusing his talk on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of use reflected the day’s theme of applying data in the real world.

Let’s not forget the basics.

Jason Ward of NC State’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering had wise words to share when he reminded attendees, “Let’s not forget the basics as we try to add [technology] on.” Ward’s talk emphasized that moving into technology and data application depended on strong fundamentals for success.

Overall, all the symposium presenters reiterated a key message: Good managers can use data and precision systems to improve animal welfare, production and training. Even more key is realizing that good data can’t replace good management. As Tami Brown-Brandl of the University of Nebraska put it, “[We] can never take out the animal caretaker…but we can make them more efficient.”

And that message didn’t just come from established researchers and producers. Three students presented research posters, signalling their engagement with emerging animal agriculture topics. Chelsea Phillips of the Prestage Department of Poultry Science won first prize for her poster on supervised machine learning techniques for investigating chicken muscle myopathies. Poster prizes were sponsored by the National Pork Board.

From Bewleys’s opening presentation to Maurice Pitesky’s final talk, the message of the symposium was clear. Data and precision systems can move animal agriculture into a future that solves both human and animal challenges.

By the Numbers

Speakers: 13
Universities: 3
Companies: 7
NC State departments: 3, from 2 colleges
Student posters: 3
Attendees: 90+

Planning Committee

Rocio Crespo, DVM, DACPV, College of Veterinary Medicine, NC State
Rhea Hebert, M.A., Prestage Department of Poultry Science, NC State
Jonathan Holt, Ph.D., Department of Animal Science, NC State
Prafulla Regmi, Ph.D., Prestage Department of Poultry Science, NC State
Jason Ward, Ph.D., Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, NC State
Stephanie Ward, Ph.D., Department of Animal Science, NC State

About the FAI

The FAI is a partnership between the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) at NC State University. Led by Paula Cray of CVM, and Pat Curtis and Todd See of CALS, the FAI has an ambitious vision.

The world’s population will grow to more than nine billion by 2050. Changes in global diets have increased demand for food animal products. We do not have the water or land to simply scale up current cultivation methods. We need true innovation in the underlying biosciences.

North Carolina is a recognized leader in food animal production. Agriculture contributes $84 billion to the state’s economy and generates 663,200 jobs. More than 60% stems directly from food-animal systems. Even more if you factor in offshore marine fisheries and plant-based agribusiness that supplies feedstocks.

The FAI can help North Carolina become the world leader in food animal sciences by coordinating new research with existing proven infrastructure. CALS has partnered with CVM to lead this transformative initiative, and as it grows, we will enlist the support of our partners at NC State, other land grant universities, government and industry.