The Electronic Cowboy Is Almost Here

By Will Verboven, Contributing Editor

Some years ago, I wrote a whimsical column about how cattle ear tags might be used to track their whereabouts and body temperature via GPS. I speculated that an operator using such high-tech ear tags would know precisely where cattle were at all times. That ear tag technology now either exists or is about to be released. It will undoubtedly be costly, but so is losing a cow or calf.

Ear tags that determine individual cattle temperature would seem to have the most potential in feedlot situations. It would make life a lot easier for pen riders as sick cattle could be detected and sorted out even before showing other, more apparent symptoms. I expect with additional detection equipment, it could be determined when, how long and how often each bovine is at the feed bunk.

This type of tracking is well established in high-tech dairy operations. When feed consumption data is tied to milk production data, the value of data becomes much more critical. I expect the same could be done in determining rates of gain if cattle are run through automated scales tied into the electronic ear tags. Utilizing feed pens with automated gates and other robotic devices, cattle could almost be moved around with a minimum of human involvement. Sounds pretty good, especially when many operators have trouble finding and keeping highly skilled livestock handlers. I expect savvy feedlot operators are already using or contemplating such technology. But there is even more technology that would be of use in feedlots.

Recently, I came across image technology that records and analyzes dairy cattle movement over a 24-hour period. It has algorithms that can alert operators that something is not right when individual bovines deviate from their usual behavior. This technology is being used in large dairy operations where cattle are confined in large lots and it’s difficult to ascertain the well-being of one cow among many thousands. The technology uses facial, hide color patterns and ear tag recognition technology to identify and track each cow’s movement day and night.

Researchers have found that dairy cows produce most of their milk while lying down in comfortable, free stalls. The idea is that the longer a cow rests, the more milk she produces; behavior recognition technology can record when, where and how long a dairy cow rests. Feeding and other activity are also recorded and analyzed. If there is any deviation in cow or herd behavior, operators are notified in real-time. It would seem that problematic, nervous, disruptive, unproductive cows could be quickly identified and culled. I suppose over time, such cattle behavior programs can identify ideal practices and handling that operators can use to improve cattle well-being and production for the entire herd.

I suspect such overall cattle behavior information would be of real value to feedlot operators as well. It would be ideal for lowering stress levels in pens by identifying cattle prone to aggressive behavior. Heck, in the big picture, behavior data could affect the location, design and size of pens, feeding times and all sorts of cattle performance nuances that generally go unnoticed, even by skilled pen riders. However, if temperature-sensing ear tags connected to a GPS locater and tag readers at sorting gates are made feasible, it would make a world of difference in earlier and quicker treatment of sick cattle in feedlot situations. A side consequence of 24-hour behavior image technology is that human interaction with cattle is also regularly recorded. That could have both repercussions and benefits.

I expect research is already looking at even more sophisticated cattle ID technology. In non-food animals, subcutaneous ID implants are already used in many applications but are costly for general commercial livestock situations. That will change. GPS-connected ear tags could be programmed to alert cow-calf producers that cattle have suddenly left an area or have been stolen, but clever rustlers could subvert that by cutting the ear tag off. ID implants are harder to tamper with by ignorant rustlers. I expect those with extensive grazing properties would see value in being able to instantly track every bovine on far-flung ranges without having to spend days counting cattle. Dead cattle would also be easier to find.

Some folks are already experimenting with drones to locate and count range cattle. I expect drones could also be used to round up cattle and drive them toward collection areas. I can see potential in using drones with infrared technology to hunt and harass nefarious predators like coyotes and wolves. If only we could use sophisticated American military drone technology to lethally deal with problematic predators that so viciously attack and disembowel defenseless livestock. Did I mention I have a visceral dislike for livestock-killing predators?

The day may yet come, if it hasn’t already, when motorized cowboy robots may be used to locate and move cattle in fields and pens. Maybe those robots could be used to detect trespassers and rustlers, even shoot at predators too, although the latter may be wishful thinking. As outlandish as all this may seem, it will happen; technology, crafty cattlemen, inventors and entrepreneurs will see to that.

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