Fulbright Scholar Utilizes Technology to Explore Age-Old Problems

Fulbright Scholar Mark Trotter, associate professor at CQUniversity Australia (CQU), is using new technologies to solve age-old problems. Trotter is exploring how integrating satellite vegetation imaging systems and on-animal sensors might help American and Australian ranchers make better grazing management decisions.

Trotter received a prestigious Fulbright Future Scholarship, funded by the Kinghorn Foundation, to apply his research in Australia to grazing lands in Ohio and New Mexico. He spent the last half of 2019 studying cattle in the temperate pastures of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) farms and the desert rangeland properties of New Mexico State University.

“Although they are two very different climates and grazing systems,” said Trotter “I found the ranchers and producers in both areas were asking very similar questions about how to be more efficient in utilizing the grass they grow.”

Trotter explained that there are a lot of grazing management inefficiencies. He suggests that in some areas of Australia, cattle producers are only utilizing about 25% of their pastures. Producers have limited time and access to assess their fields and livestock each day. He hopes to increase that efficiency through integrating satellite imagery and on-animal sensors such as GPS tracking and accelerometers (Fitbit-type sensors). By utilizing both technologies, Trotter is hoping to reach “hybrid vigor” in data.

“The satellite imagery gives us full access to the ranchers’ entire property. We can see where the land is poor or the grass more productive,” Trotter said.

This technology has been utilized in past pasture management research and available to Australian graziers for over two decades. However, there are limitations to the technology.

“Satellites can’t always see through the clouds and they aren’t always taking a picture when you want them to. They also can’t tell us where and how much time cattle spend grazing, animal behaviors change when there are variations in the pasture being grazed, both over time and space,” Trotter explained. “On-animal sensors provide additional data about how the animals are interacting with the feed-base, and it’s this data which needs to be integrated with the satellite systems to make a genuinely useful system. This sort of system will help improve grazing management, get better timing in paddock rotations and potentially tell us when supplement needs to be put out and where to place it so the animals better use the landscape.”

Practical solutions for producers are Trotter’s primary focus in his research. In addition to time, he recognizes the cost of labor and increasing lack of industry experience as additional factors limiting the productivity of small and mid-size cattle producers.

“You have some people who have been in the industry for a really long time and they can drive out or ride out on a horse and look at the pasture biomass and animal behaviors and make fairly accurate decisions about when to move their animals to another paddock,” said Trotter. “But not everybody has that experiential knowledge."

Trotter described additional advantages to technology.

"The use of technology allows us to replicate the traditional approach with fewer people and train up new people with these skills as they enter the industry. In some ways, these systems are even better than traditional rancher observations because they provide 24-hour data remotely delivered to a phone or tablet; this sort of information has never been available to the livestock industries before," he added. 

Technology can also serve to bring in younger generations to farms, or encourage those raised on farms to continue to farm.

"One other benefit we are starting to see is an increased interest amongst the next generation of ranchers in returning to the farm; they can see the benefits of this sort of technology and how it could change the way they could manage a grazing operation for the better”Fulbright Scholar Mark Trotter (rt.) with Scott Payne, manager at the Jackson Agricultural Research Station

Trotter was introduced to Ohio State through CFAES and Animal Sciences Professor James Kinder, who is also an adjunct professor at CQ. Kinder served as host to Trotter, his wife Tieneke, and their two sons Hudson and Edmund. Kinder and his wife, Denva, provided the Trotters with use of their Wooster condominium and vehicles for personal use. Kinder pointed out that Mark wasn’t the only Trotter collaborating with Ohio State faculty and staff.

“Tieneke was engaged with several faculty at Ohio State ATI and a few others in CFAES regarding some preliminary planning for an undergraduate study abroad program in collaboration with CQUniversity, where Tieneke is also on faculty,” said Kinder. “She was also engaged in gaining expertise on some of the “hands on” teaching approaches at Ohio State ATI, using precision technologies.”

Additionally, Kinder introduced Trotter to Animal Sciences Associate Chair Tony Parker and Assistant Professors Alvaro Garcia Guerra and Luis Moraes.  Parker and Garcia Guerra helped Trotter with the animal research while at Ohio State and Moraes will assist with data and analysis. Scott Payne, manager at the Jackson Agricultural Research Station, also assisted with cattle management and observation at the Jackson, Ohio facility.

Trotter’s collaboration with Garcia Guerra has already resulted in another grant-funded project, “Evaluation of on-animal sensors for early detection of disease and beef bull performance during the breeding season.” Trotter and Garcia Guerra, with assistance from Animal Sciences Clinical Veterinarian and Professional Practice Assistant Professor Justin Kieffer as well as undergraduate student Caleb Rykaczewski, will use accelerometers and GPS trackers to monitor the health of beef bulls. The project is funded through the American Association of Bovine Practitioners Foundation Competitive Research Proposal.

Trotter stressed the importance of continuing to build stronger collaborations between American and Australian institutions.

“Cattle producers worldwide have similar issues. By collaborating beyond our borders we have access to increased skills and funding opportunities. We can go on to address worldwide issues,” Trotter explained. “These relationships will lead to at least three more projects. I’m leaving behind sensors for this project and others. This in-turn leads to more funding and more opportunities to help the farming industry.”

Kinder supported the importance of  multinational collaboration from a broader perspective, “Relationships are fostered that will result in multiple travel exchanges of faculty and students between the two Universities that will ultimately result in stronger relationships that are the lifeline for stimulation of faculty and students in their career endeavors.”