Thursday, December 7, 2023

Dropping the fences for collared cows

Avatar photo
Fences are to farming what salt water is to the sea, but a NZ agri-tech firm is tipping out the traditional model of what a farm should look like, as its technology allows cows to graze behind invisible fences. Richard Rennie spoke to Halter business manager Steve Crowhurst about the company’s plans to go commercial in the new year.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Steve Crowhurst | October 12, 2020 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

AT FIRST glance the herd of cows happily grazing in lush Waikato pasture appear the same as any in the region at this time of year. But take a closer look, and they are grazing within a zone without the usual array of standards and reels to keep them there.

The cows are members of one of several relaxed but leading-edge herds in the Waikato, whose grazing and management is being controlled through a GPS collar and software system developed by New Zealand agri-tech start-up Halter.

The Halter technology solar-powered GPS-enabled collars transmits five data readings a second on the cow’s status. They also ensure she is contained within a grazing break as defined on the farmer’s smartphone.

Wearable tech for cows is not new. For well over a decade, collars or anklets that hold the cow number and monitor movement for mating activity have been available, along with boluses that get dropped into the rumen to monitor herd health.

But after three years in development, a legendary pitch to Silicon Valley investors and lengthy trialling, the Halter technology promises to deliver farmers more individual animal data than they have had access to in the past.

The company is founded by Craig Piggott, the son of Morrinsville dairy farmers Malcolm and Rosalie, where Halter’s development base is located today. The technology was developed over time as Piggott came back to the farm on weekends, while still working for groundbreaking company Rocket Lab. 

“Craig could see there was a lot of time spent by his Dad moving fences, stock and particularly getting cows to the dairy for milking every day,” Halter business manager Steve Crowhurst said.

“Ultimately, he got to the point where he had to leave Rocket Lab and pursue Halter’s development, with Peter Beck’s blessing. Today, Peter is on Halter’s board.”

Aged 23, Piggott trekked to Silicon Valley to pitch his idea for initial Tier 1 funding. He floodlit a paddock on the family farm back in Morrinsville, arranged a video link to his laptop while pitching and had potential investors shift the cows to a new break, 10,000km away.

To this day, it is regarded as one of the most memorable pitches ever made, and resulted in input from investors and advisors who have worked with the likes of Spotify, AirBnB and Tesla.

Patented algorithmic technology embedded in the collars enables the cows to be trained to respond to vibration and sound cues. These effectively replace the usual visual cues like fences and gates. Sounds tell them where they can go, and vibrations where they cannot.

“The training and conditioning to these new cues relates directly to Pavlovian theory of conditioned response,” Crowhurst said.

Pavlov found giving food to dogs when he rang a bell caused dogs to salivate. Soon, simply ringing the bell, regardless of providing the food, caused the same response. 

“Typically, cows will respond to existing sound triggers like the click of a fence reel being wound up, or the sound of the tractor coming, as a signal they will be fed. This works on the same process,” he said.

Cows can be trained to remain within defined zones of a paddock and stepping outside of the break prompts a vibration and a sound alert that directs them back into it. 

Accessing the herd via a smartphone app means the herd can be moved from their break at the push of a button. This can include removing one of the most time-consuming jobs on a dairy farm, sitting behind a mob nudging them to the dairy for milking twice-a-day.

“One of our first commercial trial farmers using this in the Waikato can now pick his kids up from school in the afternoon, and while he’s waiting for them he will activate the collars to send the cows to the shed, so they are there when he’s back from school,” he said.

Similarly, farmers with more than one mob to milk can activate the second herd to head to the dairy while he or she is still milking the first, saving round-up time and unnecessary standing around for the cows once at the dairy.

The ability to define a paddock virtually opens options for more efficient grazing. Awkward sized paddock areas can be better allocated, area per cow based on dry matter intake can be defined and a riparian strip around waterways put in place, all  without the fencing.

Crowhurst acknowledges the surreal nature of cows grazing without physical boundaries takes any Kiwi farmer some time to get their head around, but they also soon start to see the possibilities it opens up.

“The amount of time saved enables them to do other things, to really protect waterways and better allocate feed for optimal grazing,” he said. 

“This is very much a Kiwi solution for Kiwi cows, it is not adapted from some European farm system, the algorithms are all based off the cows here in Morrinsville.”

With the collars’ ability to read and transmit multiple data points, real-time information like dry matter intake is possible and, ultimately, will link through to milk production, identifying the most and least efficient grazers in a herd.

The Halter business model is based on a subscription system, with the company retaining collar ownership and able to provide regular updates and software additions remotely, removing the risk of farmers forking out for tech that becomes redundant over time.

Crowhurst says subscription is based on a per cow per year basis, and is due for publication shortly as the company rolls into commercial production in the coming year.

“We are already getting calls from farmers all over New Zealand about the collars, and at this stage see plenty of potential ahead, even just within NZ,” he said.

People are also reading