These Cows Will Text You When They’re in Heat

Dairy farmers are using sensors in cows’ stomachs to track the health of the herd.
Illustrator: Josh Freydkis

Every morning, Austin Knowles pulls on his rubber boots, dodges the manure in his farmyard, and opens the creaky wooden door of his 200-year-old barn on a hilltop in Worcestershire, 130 miles northwest of London. Inside, his dairy cows are busy uploading data to the cloud. Each animal has a half-pound sensor in her stomach, which is linked via Wi-Fi to a service that helps Knowles analyze the health and well-being of his herd. If an animal falls ill, the system e-mails the vet days before the cow is visibly sick. When one is about to go into heat, Knowles and his staff get a text message. “Cows are a lot of work,” the third-generation farmer says over tea at the rough-hewn wooden table in his kitchen. “The technology takes the edge off a bit.”

Knowles’s Hollings Hill is one of 350 farms in almost two dozen countries using technology from Austrian startup SmaXtec to monitor their livestock. It works like this: A weighted sensor about the size of a hot dog is inserted into a cow’s throat with a metal rod and lodges in the rumen, the first of a cow’s four stomachs. The device—equipped with a battery that lasts four years, about the length of a dairy cow’s productive life—transmits up-to-the-minute data such as the pH of her stomach, her temperature, how much she moves, and the amount of water she’s consumed. A base station in the barn picks up the signals, adds readings on ambient temperature and humidity, and then uploads all the information to the cloud.

The half-pound, 4-inch-long sensor lodges in the rumen, the first of a cow’s four stomachs.

The half-pound, 4-inch-long sensor lodges in the rumen, the first of a cow’s four stomachs.

Source: SmaXtec

Since SmaXtec started offering the service six years ago, its devices have been implanted in 15,000 cows. Devices like SmaXtec’s sensors offer farmers and vets an early warning system that can reduce infectious diseases in their livestock, according to an independent study by the University of Cambridge. “It’s easier, after all, to look at the situation from inside the cow than in the lab,” says SmaXtec co-founder Stefan Rosenkranz. Although the company’s gear can’t yet tell farmers exactly what maladies might be afflicting their livestock, its temperature alarms “make you go and check earlier than you otherwise would,” says Helen Hollingsworth, a veterinary nurse employed by Molecare Veterinary Services, SmaXtec’s distributor in the U.K. “If you can detect illness early, you can start antibiotics earlier and ultimately use less.”

Molecare also markets its own cloud-based technology to British farmers to allow them to track animals across an entire farm. One program Knowles is considering would look at data from scales at the water troughs to determine how quickly his 450 cows are growing. Another taps sensors placed in the field to measure how much they’re eating. And one that’s being tested uses temperature and humidity gauges to monitor the health of chickens. Farmers can share the data with retailers to give corporate customers a window into the quality of the product they’re buying, says Keith Evans, who oversees the sensor technology at Molecare. “The idea is to give automated data in real time to everybody in the supply chain,” Evans says.

SmaXtec says that with 90 million cattle on dairy farms around the world, the market for the sensors is huge. It’s targeting industrial operations in China, the Middle East, and the U.S., where herds of 25,000 aren’t unusual. The company or its distributors typically pay the upfront costs of deploying the gear and building the network—about $600, plus $75 to $400 per cow—and charge around $10 a month per cow for the service.

Knowles says the SmaXtec gear saves him the trouble of pulling his cows out of the herd and placing them in a gigantic metal vice called a cattle crush, where a vet checks their vitals. The sensors can also predict with 95 percent accuracy when a cow will give birth, allowing farmers to maximize milk production by spacing pregnancies as close together as possible. “The crux of any dairy farm is fertility,” Knowles says as he peruses graphs and charts on a laptop giving him details of his cows’ health and milk output. “We are trying to have a calf per cow every year. Everything we do on the farm comes back to that.”

The bottom line: An Austrian startup’s sensors are in the stomachs of 15,000 cows in Britain to help farmers better monitor their herds.

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