Agricultural Systems - Professor Dave Swain

Get to know Dave Swain

Our students love the level of hands-on training they receive and the skills they gain in dealing with technology.

Agricultural Systems / Professor Dave Swain

Personal experience

My name is Professor Dave Swain and I’m the Precision Livestock Management Research Area Coordinator in the School of Medical and Applied Sciences at CQUniversity.

Even though I’ve made a career in the Northern Australian livestock industry, my first research posting was as a research assistant at the University of Wales in Swansea as part of their Tropical Palaeoenvironments Research Group. This role was focused on environmental ecology and took me to places like Kenya where I spent eight months conducting fieldwork. It was in 1999 that I became more focused on livestock when I took a position with the Scottish Agricultural College’s Dairy Systems Research Group. Then in 2003 we moved the family to Rockhampton when I joined the CSIRO Livestock Industries as a Senior Research Scientist, with a focus on behavioural ecology – how cattle interact with the landscape.

Throughout my career I have been a project leader – I’ve led collaborative research projects for large European Union international grants as well as large federally-funded Australian projects that explored the opportunity for autonomous cattle control (virtual fencing) to protect riparian areas in extensive grazing systems.  When I was a Principal Research Scientist in CSIRO, I was involved in establishing a new capability in precision livestock management (PLM) to address issues associated with livestock environment interactions. This work involved developing wireless sensor network capability for livestock research and associated livestock management.

When CSIRO made the decision to close its Rockhampton labs and shift its tropical livestock research program to Townsville, the industry here in Central Queensland was left bereft and had lost a really important pillar to enable innovation. The JM Rendel Laboratories and Belmont Research Station had contributed so much to the northern beef industry and producers really felt a strong sense of connection with the activities here. Most of my colleagues relocated to Townsville with the CSIRO but I made the decision to walk across the highway and approach CQUniversity for a position. I found it impossible to accept that the Beef Capital of Australia would not have a beef research program, so through CQUniversity I was able to set about rebuilding it.

Today, the Rendel labs are buzzing again – they’re now known as CQUniversity’s Central Queensland Innovation Research Precinct, and we’re running our field experiments at Belmont Station through our partnership with AgForce.

Research at CQUniversity: Agricultural systems

I fundamentally believe that regional universities have a significant role to play in the national innovation agenda. We don’t need to be running to the big cities – regional universities can become centres of excellence in their own right and be recognized internationally. We’re proud at CQUniversity to be doing applied research and solving real world problems. We have a great team and we’re building industry partnerships to do just that.

We aspire to be recognized as the national leaders in precision livestock management research, particularly when it comes to developing systems for cattle production in remote and extensive parts of Australia. That reputation is growing and we’re now seeing evidence of that in visits from international experts like Professor Jim Kinder and Professor Derek Bailey who have had extended stays here at CQUniversity.

To this end, a Research Higher Degree in agricultural systems at CQUniversity enables you to become an expert in a particular field and really develop your skills so they can be applied in an industry context or through an academic career path. We have an expertise in a particular area of the industry – using technology to enhance livestock production – and we’re considered world leaders in that field, so you won’t get a better place to get day-to-day, hands-on experience with industry while learning from researchers who are really on top of their game.

Our students love the level of hands-on training they receive and the skills they gain in dealing with technology. It really does cover the full gamut of animal handling through to computer programming, database development and building sensor hardware. It goes over and above just learning the theory – it has an applied focus but is still technically challenging.

Current research projects

Our area of speciality is the use of cutting edge technology to automatically gather phenotypic data, such as animal live-weight, pregnancy status and parentage, as well as improve the understanding of animal behaviours, all with a view to improving on-farm profitability and productivity.

Data gathered by CQUniversity’s PLM program is already supporting the cattle industry’s genetic research, assisting in the identification of animals which are more productive and fertile. And through our ‘Data Muster’ app, producers can make more informed management decisions, such as quickly and easily identifying animals ready for market or those which may have health problems. The system has been shown to reduce on-farm labour costs by automatically monitoring animal growth rates and access to water.

Our PLM team members are also supporting the long-term development of the industry by sharing their knowledge with students enrolled in CQUniversity’s Bachelor of Agriculture. This course is unique in its combination of higher education, vocational training, research engagement and industry extension, and has been designed to provide students with the right mix of practical, skills-based training and exposure to the latest research and technology.

Research career highlights

Oddly enough, the research paper that I’m most proud of is one which has been least cited – it’s all about maternal variance. It used some cutting edge sensor technology to record cow calf interactions and for the first time showed how differences in the amount of time cows invested in nurturing their calves could impact genetic improvement programs – something which can have huge effect on the genetic improvement of a herd.

We knew all calves weren’t created equal, but we needed some evidence to show how this could impact the estimated breeding values used as part of industry wide genetic improvement programs. It’s taken nearly 10 years for the technology to now be catching up with this knowledge so that industry can start making use of this research in a meaningful way.

I’d really love to see government and research and development organisations invest more in research focused on Northern Australia. We need to build strong regional research capability and Northern Australia doesn’t have enough capacity at this time – it’s a big chunk of country that we’re looking after.

If I wasn’t doing research I’d be an entrepreneur… and probably a failed one! Seriously though, I’d be trying to do something somewhere a bit differently to how things are currently done… it’s been a bit of a pattern of behaviour through my life.

Explore more about current research at CQUni’s School of Health, Medical and Applied Sciences.