Cattle farmers have been incorporating new technologies into their management of cows for years now, using everything from facial recognition to milking robots. But the internet went wild in late November when a story about Russian farmers using virtual reality goggles on cows went viral.

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While that story was treated with a fair amount of skepticism from farmers and experts, it did bring a spotlight to the many ways cattle farmers are using technology to reduce the carbon footprint of cows and make farm management more sustainable.

“Cows are one of the most important areas that we need to improve tech applications to, principally because on a global agricultural systems basis, cows are our single best source of recycling waste nutrients,” said David Hunt, co-founder of Cainthus, an agritech company, based in Dublin, California and Ottawa, focusing on digitizing agricultural practices with computer vision and AI.

“The criticism of cows that is valid is the methane emissions that go with cows and one of the most important areas in agricultural tech is reducing those methane emissions.”

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In an interview, Hunt said because of the prevailing narrative around cows and the environment, it was important for farmers to incorporate more technology like remote sensing into farms as a way to measure exactly what type of methane emissions come from cows and dispel the narrative around how they affect the environment.

“Applying technology to cows to make our ability to produce milk and dairy products even more efficient than we can do it today is incredibly important. There’s a huge problem where people have tried to attribute the global spike in methane emissions since 2006 to cows, despite the fact that the global number of cows hasn’t really increased over that period,” Hunt said.

“We now know that it is more than likely that fracking has caused all that additional methane, but because cows were the first ones accused, we’re still dealing with that,” Hunt said.

There are more than 1.5 billion cows on Earth, and Hunt noted that they play a vital role in the agriculture business because they consume the waste food stocks from other areas of production like corn.

To help improve the cattle business, Cainthus and dozens of other companies now incorporate a bevy of technology to help ease the management of farms and improve the sustainability of the business overall.

Cows and wearables

Wearable devices like Fitbits have become one of the most widely used technologies on cows, with trackers placed around the cow’s neck. Barbara Wadsworth Jones, assistant professor at Tarleton State University in Texas and director of the Southwest Regional Dairy Center, said wearable trackers are now used every day in the management of cattle for health, reproductive purposes and overall management of the cows.

Jones said she has used the trackers for research purposes since 2011 to try to detect disease or evaluate how comfortable the cows are in the environment they’re in. Trackers are actually used for other farm animals but because of cost concerns, cattle farmers have been slow to adopt them widely on farms with hundreds or thousands of cows.

“The world is run by tech and everyone uses it, so it’s neat to see that come into the dairy industry. At the Southwest Regional Dairy Center, all of our cows wear a Fitbit, but in the US there’s not really great numbers on how many cows are actually wearing them,” Jones said.

“Technology is the wave of the future and we have a lot of work to do to make sure it’s economically viable for producers and make sure that dairy producers are getting the best management tools they can have. I’m personally excited to work in this field because it’s such a new area to work in. It’s already exploding everything. It can make managing a farm a little bit easier at times.”

Jones estimated that around 10% of dairy cattle in the US have some type of tracker on them, but regions like Europe use tech a lot more compared to in the U.S. and countries like Israel and the Netherlands have gone further in terms of incorporating technology into their management of cows.

Hunt added that wearable technology is incredibly useful for pasture-based applications but they don’t scale particularly well because of the complexity and human labor cost, which becomes problematic with thousands of cows. Wearables are traditionally used on cattle farms with about 800 cows.

AR, VR, and facial recognition with cows

Despite the recent headlines, Hunt said it was unlikely that virtual reality goggles would be effective with cows, particularly because they have a completely different view of the world compared to humans. The VR story, which initially came from a press release sent out by the Ministry of Agriculture of the Moscow region, claimed the goggles “boosted the overall emotional mood of the herd,” which allowed them to produce more milk.

“Our eyes are very different, they work very differently to how cows’ eyes work. So just on a technical application basis, a cow can’t give you feedback on what they’re seeing,” Hunt said.

“If you go to a large-scale commercial dairy farm, like the largest one we’re currently installing in have 5,500 cows total on site. That’s an extremely nice environment. The cows have outdoor access at all times so why would you want to change a cow’s perception of that environment? It makes close to zero sense to me. I don’t understand how it makes a farmer more money.”

Despite his skepticism of the Russian story, Hunt did note that cow comfort is a major topic of discussion in the industry and Dr. Temple Grandin’s five domains of animal welfare have been widely adopted.

He agreed that the more comfortable cows are, the more money farmers can make, but virtual reality goggles were not the way to achieve that goal.

“If you look at the five domains of cow welfare, what they see in their field of vision is not one of those five domains. The thought that applying virtual reality to a livestock animal like a cow will create a better situation for either the cow itself or the industry does not stand up to any sort of rigorous scrutiny in my opinion,” Hunt said, adding that his extensive familial background in farming and qualifications as a certified game ranger have given him decades of experience in animal behaviorism.

“That’s why I feel like I wouldn’t put a VR headset on any animal because it’s far more likely to freak them out than to cause a positive outcome.”

But one technology that scientists and farmers have proved to be effective with cows is augmented reality, which is still in the development stage with a number of companies. Hunt said that his team at Cainthus has come up with a few AR proof of concepts that allow farmers to use a smartphone or smart glasses to get a better view of a farm.

With AR, farmers would be able to not only gain a holistic view of the farm and all the animals on it but also the ability to hone in and find a particular animal in an AR environment. With smartphones or glasses, farmers could highlight certain animals and check in on them. The technology is still in the testing phase and is probably a few years away from being ready for farm use, but it has shown promising signs of being a useful tool for cattle farmers.

For years, farmers have used facial recognition to count a herd, or signal when a cow is sick or injured or not eating, and the technology has become another way to keep humans out of the pastures as much as possible to keep cows happier and more productive.

This technology has become more useful to farmers because the underlying hardware has become relatively cheap, something Hunt is hoping will eventually happen with AR systems.

“Fundamentally, humans have been farming cows for 8,000 years, so a lot of our animal husbandry techniques are based on limited observation by humans and reporting back on what they think the animal likes or does not like or reporting back on how well the animal performs or otherwise. The principal reason that we’re starting to apply technology to cows is to learn more about what actually makes cows happier and what makes them produce more milk than we currently know today,” Hunt said.

“In a proper, intensified rotational pasture system, which we have in Ireland, you get maybe 6,000-7,000 liters per cow per year. If you are in a large-scale indoor dairy farm in Europe, North America or the Middle East, the highest producing farms get an average of 10,000 liters per animal per year. So on an environmental sustainability basis, on a welfare basis and on an emissions basis, the more milk you get per individual cow gives you better outcomes in those key factors.”

Technologies like wearables and computer vision help farmers manage cows on a more individual basis rather than managing them at the herd level, allowing them to judge cow productivity on the basis of weight of milk produced.

With technologies like computer vision, cattle farmers can start managing cows based on which individual cow is producing the most milk and then secondarily, as the technology develops further, start to tell which cow processes the best and which cow has the best feed or water to milk out ratio.

Right now farmers are forced into a system that is inefficient from a sustainability and economic standpoint. But If farmers can start breeding the cows that are producing lots of milk but eating the least amount of seed relative to the amount of milk they produce, they can save a lot of money and reduce the strain on the environment, Hunt said.

He added that farmers are also in a bizarre situation in that they trade and sell food based on the weight of the product instead of the nutrients available. Farmers and consumers, Hunt noted, would benefit much more from a system that allowed them to sell their goods based on the nutritional profile of the food they produce rather than the weight.

Humans have always sold food this way because the technology was not available to get the kind of nutritional information that we now have access to.

Worldwide cow tech distribution

Hunt added that the United States tends to have more advanced cattle management practices while Europe tends to use more advanced technology like dairy robots, which make it a lot easier to milk cows because they can effectively “choose” when they are milked.

Most of this is due to the fact that European farms tend to be smaller and get quality bonuses based on the quality of milk they produce as opposed to U.S. farms, which are more of a commodity-based market.

In addition to milking robots and computer vision, in-line milk sensing is another technology that is gaining some traction within the cattle industry.

“There are companies that are putting spectrometers and scatter dot light technologies that are checking for any pathogens in the milk, how many white blood cells are in the milk and the nutritional quality of the milk,” Hunt said.

While there are a variety of movements aiming to promote milk from other sources like oats or almonds, Hunt said those are years away from being truly sustainable on a massive scale like cow milk is.

Both Jones and Hunt said the wide range of technologies was making it easier and more sustainable for cattle farmers to do their work and things would only improve as more technology was added in the future.

“When I think about my father and grandfather, when they would get up in the morning, the first thing they would do is go check the barn. Now, the very first thing we do is check the computer and we look at the software to see if any cows have been alerted to being sick overnight or if any cows are in heat,” Jones said.

“It has freed up some time for producers to do other more important tasks on the farm instead of manual, laborious tasks. It doesn’t change the number of hours that dairy farmers work, but now they’re looking more at the computer to watch their cows and have a lot more data.”

Olha Rohulya, Getty Images/iStockphoto