As part of our Farm 2026 series looking at what the future of UK agriculture may hold, this week we look at the livestock sector. Marie-Claire Kidd reports.
Ten years is a long time in agriculture, but experts predict it will only take a decade for technologies emerging today to become truly useful to livestock farmers.
They say the key is a user-friendly interface, which farmers can simply plug in, turn on and work with. In 2026, animal husbandry will rely less on site observation and more on remote sensing – acquisition of information without making physical contact with the object.
For example, via cameras or heat sensors on satellites or drones, or radio-frequency identification tags or chips on or inside animals. It will mean less time on quad bikes and more time at the computer, according to Liz Bowles, head of farming at the Soil Association.
This type of technology, already widely used in the dairy industry, will be far more common in other livestock systems, and more user friendly and affordable.
She said: “Currently, under good practice guidelines, we inspect livestock daily. “Doing this remotely would mean farmers could visit their sites three times a week rather than every day.”
This is good news for farmers, she believes, and particularly for multisite businesses or extensive farms which cover difficult terrain.
Sam Hoste, acting chief executive of the Centre for Innovation Exellence in Livestock (CIEL), said: “You will not just have pieces of kit, they will be joined up end-to-end.
“We will work on ensuring electronics are delivered to the farmer which they can go out and use immediately. For example, if you have a weigh scale on-farm, the information will come back to the farmer and will be something they can actually use.
“It will be about inter-operability when it comes to tractors and computers. We are overcoming this to a large extent, so people will join up more.”
Prof Alistair Stott, head of the future farming systems group at Scotland’s Rural College, points to innovations such as Ritchie Agricultural’s Beef Monitor (see panel) as the sort of tool which could become more common.
He said: “It will decrease variability of the food supermarkets get, making it more consistent and increasing value for farmers and retailers. “This kind of technology can help us identify who is behind the game and help us start identifying why they are behind the game.”
CIEL, which is headquartered the National Agri-food Innovation Campus, at Sand Hutton, near York, links universities, companies and farmers across the UK, and will spread innovations through member companies, AHDB and vets.
Along with the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre, it is offering farmers chance to try the latest developments in the livestock sector.
Mr Hoste said: “What CIEL is about is encouraging research and innovation by commercial companies.
“It is about getting information out to commercial companies, but also getting it out to farmers.” Membership for commercial companies ranges from £15,000 for a large company to £1,000 for a micro company, Mr Hoste added.
“Once people have joined, they are on an equal footing and the micro company pays the same as the larger company.” The membership package for farmers is currently under discussion.
Mr Hoste added: “We have always described CIEL as a hub. Organisations can become involved in getting research out to farmers quicker than we can now.
“We are looking at research problems and, at the same time, it is about getting things out which farmers can be using, rather than simply doing research.”
Counting steaks on live cattle
SRUC, feed supplier Harbro Group, technology firms Ritchie Agricultural and Innovent, and Morrisons and Scotbeef, are developing a new way to manage feeding and slaughter of beef cattle.
By combining a weighing platform, 3D camera and smart eartags, farmers can count how many steaks individual cattle can produce at any one time. The system, based on Ritchie Agricultural’s Beef Monitor weighing platform, records weight and shape data every time an animal walks across it to access water, reducing labour needed to weigh them individually from meat sheep on hard to measure traits.
Only about half of UK-produced lambs meet target conformation and fat quality specifications, resulting in waste at the farm and processor. Visual image assessments of lamb carcase quality and individual in-line meat hygiene records will be linked to genome screening technology to identify bloodlines and genomic regions which are more productive and resistant to economically important diseases.
The project will explore how genomic solutions can increase productivity and efficiency and improve animal health. and eliminating guesswork. It allows farmers to ensure optimum weight at the abattoir, reducing risk of overweight penalties and enabling them to manage nutrition to speed up or slow down growth.
Pre-empting tail biting in pigs using 3D video to measure tail posture
Tail biting starts without warning and results in pain and sickness for bitten pigs and economic losses for farmers, particularly when infection results in condemnation of meat. Research shows pig behaviour changes before tail biting starts.
This project aims to develop a product based on video technology and machine-vision software to automatically detect these changes and warn farmers so they can intervene. The project brings together SRUC’s expertise in pig behaviour analysis, Innovent’s machine vision software and Sainsbury’s supply chain perspective. Agri-EPI will offer experience with on-farm 3D video and agri-tech expertise.
Carcase trait phenotype feedback for genomic selection in sheep
The Texel Sheep Society, Anglo Beef Processors and SRUC are collecting, analysing and exploiting genomic and phenotypic data from meat sheep on hard to measure traits.
Only about half of UK-produced lambs meet target conformation and fat quality specifications, resulting in waste at the farm and processor.
Visual image assessments of lamb carcase quality and individual in-line meat hygiene records will be linked to genome screening technology to identify bloodlines and genomic regions which are more productive and resistant to economically important diseases.
The project will explore how genomic solutions can increase productivity and efficiency and improve animal health.
Sam Hoste, acting chief executive of CIEL
“There will be more sensors measuring metabolic systems inside animals. We will be able to measure their movements better and hopefully be able to pick up early signs of health or illness.
“We will also be able to see if things are not working effectively and if animals are not behaving as they should be.”
Bob Ritchie, company secretary, Ritchie Agricultural
“We are heading into a digital arena. We have seen advances on the arable side, as well as pig, dairy and poultry sides.
“We can also see smartphone technology being used to a greater benefit. These things can happen quickly and it is really up to the individual farmer as to how quickly they would like to move.”