Quantified Ag's Quest to Turn Cattle into IoT Nodes

Using a sort of fitness tracker for cows, the Nebraska startup says it can help cattle feedlot operators detect illness in their herds sooner than conventional methods.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Apr 14, 2016

The vast majority of the 30 million cows raised for meat in the United States spend the last four to eight months of their lives in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or feedlots, where they are fattened for slaughter. These lots hold up to a million cows at once, and keeping them all healthy is a difficult task. Twenty percent of cattle suffer from illness during their time in feedlots, and two to three percent of them die before slaughter, according to Vishal Singh, CEO of Quantified Ag, a Lincoln, Nebraska-based startup that has developed an ear-tag sensor designed to track a cow's movements. Quantified Ag's proprietary algorithms are used to analyze the data collected from the tags. Its cloud-based platform identifies animals that are beginning to show symptoms of illness. The goal is to alert feedlot managers to problems more quickly than human inspectors, who patrol feedlots on horseback, can detect them.

Because cattle innately try to conceal illness in order to lower their susceptibility to predators, it can be difficult to recognize symptoms visually. Sick cattle tend to hang their heads and sometimes drool, especially when they are suffering from respiratory illnesses that make breathing difficult. But because most animals in feedlots spend a great deal of time eating, the angle at which sick animals hang their heads looks only subtly different.

The tag, roughly the size of a pack of gum, is pierced to the cow's ear.
"The core of what we do is to be able to compare data among animals," Singh explains. "The whole point of the system is to pick out outliers." To do this, the sensor is designed to collect data on mobility, range of motion and temperature.

Quantified Ag's ear-tag, powered by a AA battery, contains an accelerometer, temperature sensors, a microcontroller and a Semtech radio module. The tag, roughly the size of a pack of gum, is pierced to the cow's ear. The sensory data is transmitted to a Semtech gateway, which has a 1-kilometer (0.6-mile) read range and is compliant with the LoRa Alliance's communication protocol for low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN). Also integrated into the same housing is the passive low-frequency (LF) RFID inlay that the feedlot uses to electronically identify each cow as it is brought into the feedlot, and throughout its life there, up to the point of slaughter.

Two Nebraska CAFOs—the Darr Feedlot, in Lexington, and Midwest Feeding Company, near Milford—are currently evaluating Quantified Ag's technology, Singh sats. In total, approximately 1,200 animals have been tagged with Quantified Ag's sensors across the two CAFOs, which have capacities of 40,000 and 14,000 head, respectively. One Semtech reader is installed at each location.

Quantified Ag's value proposition is to empower feedlot operators to get an earlier jump on treating sick cows in order to control costs and boost size. "There is an economic hit of about $3.2 billion" across the feedlot industry, Singh says, related to the cost of treating sick cattle and the fact that bovine respiratory disease, the most common ailment in CAFOs, contributes to lower growth rate and, therefore, less meat.

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