In the future, everything is going to be connected to the Internet—even our farm animals. We'll track cattle the same way we monitor human health: with always-on, wearable devices that follow animals wherever they go.
Several startups are working on these Fitbits for the farm yard. They hope to make detecting illness easier, and ultimately save the livestock industry money and reduce human risks by having fewer animals fall prey to disease.
Vishal Singh, CEO of Quantified Ag in Nebraska, says feedlot owners currently identify sick animals largely by observing them. If they look sick, they're pulled out and checked. "In the feedlot industry, you have cattle in small areas. You have workers who have to visually identify the animals. The problem is they want to hide their symptoms, so humans aren't able to pick up on them until they're very sick."
Quantified Ag is testing an ear-tag that monitors for temperature and other vital signs, as well as for animal movement. The data is transferred wirelessly to a central server where it's analyzed for irregularities. When animals fall outside of a normal range, they can be pulled out and looked over.
"We're removing that human observational element, so animals can't hide their symptoms," says Singh, who also teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "If the cow is starting to run a fever, they're not going to be as active as they normally are. That's one method of finding out if they're not feeling well."
Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, Vital Herd has developed an "e-pill" that sits in cows' rumens (a part of their stomachs). After it's swallowed, the device senses for things like heart rate, respiration rate, stomach acidity and hormone levels and alerts workers by text message if a problem is found. It's designed for dairy herds.
Brian Walsh, Vital Herd's CEO, says 40% of dairy cows get sick each year and that losses from livestock animal sickness amount to $5 billion a year in the U.S. alone.
And then there are various collars for farm animals, including the Silent Herdsman from the U.K. It tracks a cows' level of food intake and rumination, and monitors how much heat they're producing—a good indicator of health.
Indeed, before the ear-tag, Singh originally worked on a thermal-imaging drone to do the same job. But, after talking with feedlot owners, he decided flying machines are too impractical for mainstream use. He argues that tagging is straightforward because it's what the industry (which fattens up cattle before slaughter) is used to.
"We're trying to appease everyone. The [tag] is fairly permanent. It won't rub off, but it's also not internal," he says.