When technology can help farmers, it’s worth the investment. But when it’s bad, it may as well be a cow patty.
So, be wary. And do your research.
“Don’t assume something that says it measures something is actually measuring what it says it’s measuring,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bewley, speaking to attendees of a track breakout session Jan. 23 at the Dairy Strong conference.
Bewley is a dairy housing and analytics specialist with Alltech of Kentucky. Alltech makes varieties of accelerometer-based Fitbit-like gadgets and other devices for measuring animal data.
“Technology can be very exciting, but those investing in it need to maintain realistic expectations,” Bewley said.
Some of the wearable devices for cows can measure a cow’s activity, rumination time, sleeping time, standing time, feeding time and a host of other activities and biological markers. Other devices, like GPS for cows, can tell a farmer the location of a particular cow.
“I grew up on a family farm of 65 cows, and I knew every single one of them,” he said. “But on a farm with 6,500 cows — or more — that’s not possible.”
Some devices can tell if a cow is in estrus, if it has mastitis, or is about to become lame. Some ear tags can measure how long a cow chews.
“We could measure too many things, but it (the cost) would quite quickly sink your business pretty quickly,” Bewley said. “So you have to decide what variables are important — not just what’s interesting but what’s important and useful.”
If mastitis is detected early, the difference in the cost to the farmer can be a fraction of what it would be if not detected until later.
Technology itself is cheap — an accelerometer can be bought online for about a dollar, Bewley said — but the interpretation of the data and making it consumable make it expensive. Many people don’t know what to do with the data, if anything, once they have it.
And it may not tell you what you want it to tell you. Management and environmental factors — rain, snow, pen changes, changes in the group makeup of the animals — can cause cows to react differently.
Then there are the glitches — repeat alerts, failed devices, lightning strikes, false positives, false negatives, and so on. Ear tags can snag on things and rip out of an ear. Tail monitors can be kept on for a maximum of four days, lest they cut off circulation to the tail.
Thermometers to look for fever can be placed in ears, but about half the cows rip them out. “Turns out they don’t like things being shoved in their ear canal,” Bewley said.
Then there’s the matter of data ownership. Who owns the information about your cows? And how can you protect that information?
Other problems: Data entry can be inconsistent, there tends to be a lack of standardization from farm to farm, and rural Internet connectivity is still far from perfect. “There’s a lot of information sitting in silos,” Bewley said.
Bewley has a wish list for farm technology. “I’d like to see it be smart phone based, cloud based, made for both visual and verbal learners (meaning videos and graphics as well as words), and I’d like to see it have real-time data display,” he said. “I’d like to see technology be able to move away from ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and instead understand the nuances.”
Subcutaneous devices for cows could be in the future, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would have to ensure the devices wouldn’t end up in the food supply, he said.