It's Like A Fitbit...For A Cow.
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
It’s Like A Fitbit…For A Cow.
I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you about my job. I briefly mentioned it in my first blog post, but I have a very interesting career in the Agriculture World, and I think many people will find it intriguing.
I work for a cattle technology company, and to the mainstream consumer that hardly knows anything about cows, other than they provide us with milk and steak; we manufacture, sell, and implement “Fitbits for cows”. For those that are familiar with cow terms, my job is essentially to help Farmers and Ranchers across North America implement activity and rumination monitoring technology into beef and dairy cattle herds.
My role as the North America Training Coordinator is to develop, distribute, and implement training content; train employees, partners, dealers, distributors, and customers on our product and how to manage herds using the technology; and lastly, I play a role in our technical department where I travel the country and install systems and trouble-shoot technical issues as well.
So, what does the product look like and how is it used?
We have a tag that the cow wears; either a neck collar with the tag on it, or an ear tag that functions much like a cow ear ring. The tag has an electronic component inside that tracks movement across an x, y, and z plane, which can track patterns of movement. Does the cow have her head down because she is eating? Is the cow expressing a forward, inclination movement, because she is mounting another cow? Is the cow laying down in her stall and resting because she is done working (aka milking) for the day?
The tag also tracks rumination. Rumination is the process in which all ruminant animals digest food. Ruminant animals have four stomach-like compartments that all play a role in food digestion. Rumination is the process in which food flows from each compartment, gets eructated back into the bovine’s mouth, chewed some more for further breakdown, and then swallowed for final digestion in the stomach-like compartments. Our tag has the ability to track how many minutes per day the animal eats and ruminates.
Why is this important? This is important because a cow’s health is dependent on her rumination. Rumination patterns are also an early indicator of disease onset, according to a proven study that Cornell University conducted using our tags to determine how early our product can diagnose disease before a person can diagnose based on physical symptoms. Cornell found that our product can detect disease onset .5-3 days prior to physical diagnosis, depending on the disease.
So, building on top of this logic…why is this important for farmers to be able to know the onset of a disease before they can physically diagnose it? There are two main reasons for this.
1) When a cow has to display physical symptoms in order to be diagnosed with a disease, chances are her milk production has already taken a hit and is on the decline. If the animal is not producing milk at her full potential, she is ultimately costing the farmer money instead of making money. She is eating more food, and not maximizing the utilization of the feed for milk production so the farmer is not making as much money. A dairyman gets paid per hundred weight (cwt). CWT means the farmer gets paid a set amount of money per every 100 pounds of milk produced. One gallon of milk is about 8 pounds, so this means that a farmer gets paid a dollar amount after he/she produces about 12.5 gallons of milk. When milk prices are low (under $15/cwt), farmers really focus down to the penny that these cows are producing.
2) If a farmer doesn’t know a cow is sick until physical symptoms are showing, chances are she will go on a full medicine treatment protocol, which can last up to a week. This means that the farmer is injecting this animal with medication each day until the treatment runs its course. When a farmer injects an animal with medication, they are required to hold their milk, meaning that milk becomes contaminated and cannot be used for consumption by humans. This is called a withdrawal period, and it allows the medication to be metabolized in the cow’s system, and broken down, so that traces of it cannot be found in milk. Even if a cow is given her last shot, she usually has to wait 1-2 days before she can be milked into the general bulk tank again. When this happens, the farm is again losing money AND now the cow has been injected with medication which can cause stress, loss in milk production, and bacteria to build up tolerances against these medications.
If our product can detect onset of disease .5-3 days prior to physical symptoms, chances are her health disorder is treatable with a “preventative” approach. A preventative approach may involve a mineral or buffer drench or probiotic tablet. These methods result in zero withdrawal period, meaning the farmer can continue to consume the cow’s milk because it is not contaminated, and the cow gets treated with a more holistic approach so we avoid ever needing to stick a needle in her.
This brings me to my next point…hormone injections. Consumers HATE when they hear cows are injected with hormones and how their daughters will hit puberty at 7 years old if they drink milk from a cow that has been injected with hormones. Okay, first off, I will dive into the basics of hormone programs, but wanted to make a point that these hormones are either metabolized before milk even leaves the cow, or they have zero impact on humans due to biological differences between us and cows. Check this website out for more of an explanation: http://sciencedrivennutrition.com/hormones-milk/.
I am not advocating for hormone programs, but I am advocating for an educated consumer, so if the only research you read comes from PETA and other vegan organizations, you need to be well-rounded and read from other sources as well. Try playing devil’s advocate in your research and questioning, because I can guarantee you’ll learn so much more by learning all points of view. This will also help you be more educated and help you build a solid foundation for your consumer choices.
Hormone injections are used to set a cow up to be bred. What typically happens is a cow gets a series of GnRH and LUT shots. GnRH stimulates follicle production and release from the ovary, and LUT causes follicular deterioration. The follicle on the ovary contains eggs, so when the follicle bursts open, it releases eggs into the Fallopian tubes and they start their journey toward the uterus to imbed in the uterine wall. There are many more complex steps involved in how these hormones actually work, but that is the 30,000-foot view. By mimicking these steps with hormones, we can essentially trick a cow’s body into a heat cycle to release eggs and then the farmer can use a straw of semen to artificially inseminate her to get her bred and pregnant.
Now, the issue I have with hormone programs is that they are used as a blanket treatment. Large groups of cows get enrolled into these hormone programs at a time so in theory, they will all come into heat together and therefore can be bred at once. It is hard to find good “cow” people these days so trying to determine visually if a cow is in heat to be bred, is becoming a lost art. It is easier and more efficient for a farmer to enroll cows into hormone programs. By doing this, farmers can be forcing cows into a heat cycle when her body is just not ready. If she is at peak milk production, her body is working overtime trying to convert feed to milk. These cows typically take a longer time to naturally start cycling, and by giving them hormone injections, the farmer can cause more stress on the animal and actually do more harm to her physical well-being.
However, our tag uses raw activity and rumination data to calculate what we call a “heat index” number that uses complex algorithms to determine if an animal is naturally coming into heat or not. Our tag has been proven to be 90-95% accurate at detecting natural heats.
What exactly does this mean?
This means that a farmer can track heats naturally, and no longer needs to give ANY hormone injections to force an animal to cycle. When her body is ready to start cycling naturally, our tag will detect this, and tell the farmer she is ready to be bred through our software program. This not only saves the farm time and money, but also reduces the number of touches that animal is given by about 10 touches, meaning we are not handling her and stressing her out.
Our product ALLOWS A COW TO BE A COW!
If you want to learn more about this technology, or have any questions, please reach out to us on our Weber Hollow Homestead website contact page. Also, subscribe to the blog to find out what the topic of discussion will be next week!