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

In addition, feedlot managers will soon be required, under a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration rule called the Veterinary Feed Directive, to allow feed containing antibiotics or other drugs to be administered only by certified veterinarians. This change, which is being implemented due to human health concerns associational with the growing use of antibiotic drugs in livestock, means that feedlots will begin administering drugs more judiciously in order to avoid having to pay veterinarians to do so. Detecting and treating sick animals sooner should help control these costs, Singh notes, because it should enable feedlots to effectively treat illness after the initial administration of drugs, thereby reducing the number of subsequent times each animal must be administered drugs

"So far, our system is able to flag sick animals one to three days sooner than the feedlot workers are able to, via visual inspection," Singh says, regarding the pilot tests. "It's a blind study. So, there's a section of animals that are tagged, but the feedlot workers are not given access to the data." Veterinary personnel working with Quantified Ag to run the pilots collect data that documents the moments when feedlot workers flag potentially ill animals, and then compare that to when the analyzed data first detected signs of illness. The three- to four-day gap is the difference.

The tags in production
The goal, Singh says, is for Quantified Ag to be able to retrieve the sensor from each animal at the point of slaughter, deconstruct the device, remove the RFID tag (which can be used only once, in order to avoid duplicative listings in the federal registry) and then build the sensors and microcontroller into a new sensor tag containing a new battery. He declines to share the likely costs of using Quantified Ag's products, which will be sold as a subscription service that includes the ear tag hardware, nor how soon feedlots are likely to reap a return on investment.

Quantified Ag is not the only company that has developed a sensor-based approach to tracking cattle health in feedlot settings. Precision Animal Solutions, based in Manhattan, Kansas, uses ultrawide-band (UWB) tags integrated into an ear tag in order to track each cow's precise movements inside its feeding pen. The company uses this data to then estimate which animals are showing signs of illness. However, because UWB is based on triangulation, three readers must be mounted in each pen.

On America's Greatest Makers, a reality television show created by Intel that is currently running on the Turner Broadcasting System cable channel, one of the contestants is developing a similar solution for ranchers. The system, known as Herddogg, employs sensor ear tags that transmit data collected either by readers mounted to fence posts or by compact wireless readers mounted to cattle dogs that direct the grazing animals.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said that up to 70 percent of cattle get sick during their time in feedlots. In fact, it is 20 percent. Also, the time spent in feedlots range from four to eight months, not four to six months as previously described. We regret the errors.

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