A happy, healthy cow is a productive cow. Keeping cows in this state of well-being is more than a full-time job — it requires early mornings and long hours.
Smart agriculture technologies, however, are reducing the workloads of modern dairy farmers, improving the health of their animals and helping them produce more and better dairy products.
Internet-connected sensors, big data analytics, robotics and other advanced technologies are playing a growing role in the dairy industry. We’ve entered the age of the connected cow.
Monitoring animal health
Farmers have begun using sensors to collect data that helps them run their farming operations. Theses sensors come in the form of smart collars, internet-connected tags that clip onto cows’ ears and even pills that stay inside the rumen, the largest of a cow’s stomachs, after the animals swallow them.
These devices collect helpful data on things like cows’ health and location. They then transmit it to the cloud, which enables farmers to view it on their computers, smartphones or tablets. This allows them to monitor their herds even when they’re not physically with them.
What kinds of data do these sensors collect? Health data is one of the main assets they provide. They can collect information on a cow’s food and water intake, which farmers can use to ensure their cows are getting enough nutrients. Sometimes these nutrients, such as the amino acid lysine, directly affect how much milk a cow produces.
This intake information can also warn farmers that a cow is sick. If their intake levels are unusually low, this is an indication that something is off.
Smart sensors can also send alerts to farmers when they detect a cow may be in heat due to changes in her movement. This enables workers to take action immediately and reduce costs associated with artificial insemination.
They can also inform farmers when calving is taking place. Some livestock operations are even using genetic mating software to track the potential attributes of calves.
Tracking herd location
Sensors can also track cows’ movement, which gives farmers information about their health. Again, if a farmer sees that a certain cow hasn’t been moving much lately, they know they need to check up on her.
An Israeli company called Cattle Watch is also developing a location-tracking system that regularly counts the herd and enables users to pinpoint the location of individual animals.
It also allows them to set up geofences to ensure cows stay in the correct field and enables them to send out drones to check up on their herd. The system can even alert the farmer if it senses a possible predator or thief attempting to attack a cow or remove their collar.
Improving dairy production
Big data can also play a role after the farm has produced the milk or other dairy product. Robotic milking systems can take much of the work out of milking and also analyze the milk after it’s collected.
Producers of dairy products, such as famous Italian cheese maker Parmigiano Reggiano, are also using data to track their products, ensure quality and reduce fraud.
Producers can assign barcodes to each product and then log that ID into a database. If they discover a defective product while doing quality checks, they can access the database for information about what may have led to the defect.
Since the number of cheeses with names that are confusingly or fraudulently similar to Parmigiano Reggiano hit a record high in 2014, the company is also working on ways to use the system to identify and stop fraudsters.
The data backs up the notion that these precision dairy farming practices are valuable. Cargill Inc., one of the world largest agricultural companies, reported an 11.7 percent surge in milk production at Italian farms using its Dairy Enteligen application. Data monitoring also enabled India-based Chitale Dairy to produce five more liters of milk per animal.
The precision agriculture industry is just getting started.
It’s expected to be worth around $240 billion by 2050, and it’s working on improving the associated technologies and making the data and its insights more accessible to farmers.
Many smart agriculture systems also use machine learning, which means they’ll improve in accuracy the more they’re used.
Cows might not be the first population you’d expect to benefit from the use of big data, but as it turns out, it can be quite beneficial to them as well as the farmers that raise them.