Bovine bluetooth: A ‘Fitbit’ for cows debuts in Colorado stock show
January 15, 2017
BOULDER, Colo. — Shoot Em Up, a well-known Texas longhorn from Ellicott, was ready for his Twitter performance during the National Western Stock Show parade. The weather, however, was not.
That didn't faze Melissa Brandao, the woman behind the Longmont startup HerdDogg. The company has developed a small, rugged Bluetooth-enabled device designed to improve herd health and profitability by giving ranchers an easy-to-use, affordable tracking and data-gathering system.
Instead of the parade, which was clearly going to be a snowy challenge, HerdDogg systems debuted with Shoot Em Up's assistance at the Wild West Show on Jan. 14 and 15 at the National Western.
At the same time, Brandao and her small team of tech gurus are pushing hard to send out the first batch of commercially available smart tags this spring. She describes them as the equivalent of a Fitbit, except for very large, non-verbal mammals.
Social media savvy steers
When Shoot Em Up, who weighs nearly 1 ton, showed off the new technology during the National Western Stock Show, he sent out tweets letting the audience know, for instance, how fast he's walking, how many steps he's taking and his internal temperature, among other things.
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This information once was collected manually by ranchers as they physically inspected their animals — often multiple times a day — looking for those who were ailing or who were preparing to give birth.
The advent of Bluetooth technologies — which allow data to be gathered and stored locally — and cellphones have changed all that, according to Brandao.
Now, using HerdDogg, a cow with one of the young company's tags implanted in its ear can walk up to a watering trough in a far-flung pasture and take a drink of water. While the animal drinks, the data from the HerdDogg tag is being gathered by a device attached to the trough, which the company calls a dog bone. The data stays at the trough in the rugged, plastic, bone-shaped device, ready for a rancher to collect it via an app on a cellphone.
If the rancher is standing in a field, he or she simply taps the icon on the cellphone that reflects the numbered tag of the cow being monitored, and information on that cow appears. In addition, an LED light in the tag lights up.
"Our goal is to create a technology that is rancher-friendly," Brandao said. "The data is stored and transmitted when the rancher needs it."
Ranch animals have been tagged for years. In the early days, the simple plastic tags held a number that was the animal's ID. Then, as production became more sophisticated, the United States Department of Agriculture began requiring radio ID tags.
But HerdDogg is helping take the ag tag into a new world of precision agriculture, where animals can be tracked remotely, around the clock, without the use of tall radio towers or expensive networks. With more data, producers can make better-informed decisions that should help them improve herd health and profitability.
Brandao said she believes the technology can allow small- and medium-sized producers to grow their herds without having to add staff, a critical factor in an industry in which family farms are shrinking in number and consolidation is rampant.
Healthier cows, greener pastures
Ryan Rhoades, who is Colorado State University's statewide extension specialist for beef producers, said devices such as the HerdDogg tag can help ranchers finely tune their operations, improving the health of herds and saving money by reducing the need for expensive drugs and veterinary visits required when animals go from simply feeling poorly to actually being sick.
They can also help improve the sustainability of ranching by, for instance, helping ranchers track which areas of pasture land cattle are using for grazing, and then redistributing the cattle to ensure lands aren't overgrazed.
"Producers are looking for strategies to be more sustainable," Rhoades said, "to increase their efficiency and to increase the bottom line. They're also looking for tools to improve herd management and health."
Antibiotic resistance and medication use in feedlots is a big issue, Rhoades said.
"Historically, we've not been very good at diagnosing sickness," he said. "There is a consumer perception that we're treating everything and mass medicating. This kind of tech allows us to be much more precise. With the price of drugs these days, there is probably a significant reduction in medication cost as well."
The White House and reality TV
Shoot Em Up isn't the only one who has been tracking HerdDogg's progress, of course. The young company, which relocated to Longmont last summer after launching in Oregon in 2013, has already raised $750,000 and is seeking another $1 million to $2 million this year.
It spent much of last year participating in an agriculture-based Techstars program in Minneapolis and Brandao and her team won a visit to the White House in 2015 as part of a demo-days program. They were also featured on Intel's reality TV show, "America's Greatest Makers," in 2015.
Rob Schultz is managing partner of Champaign, Illinois-based Serra Ventures, a venture capital company with an interest in ag technologies.
Schultz and his partners invested $500,000 in HerdDogg and plan to participate in the next finance round as well.
Prior to backing HerdDogg, Serra had invested in a data-gathering technology used on tractors, an investment that paid off when the company was acquired by the giant Monsanto Corp.
"That was all about creating data sets to allow farmers to be more precise and improve yields. The next great frontier is livestock," Shultz said.
"Imagine you're a rancher. All of your assets are roaming around outside your immediate access and control, and you have very little information on them. Being here in the Midwest, I talked to friends who are farmers and ranchers and was able to get their perspective. If they could save one cow or even detect illness earlier and treat it with one antibiotic shot rather than a vet visit, these are big deals for these farmers."
Pilot projects and social media
As with all startups, much work lies ahead. For now, the chips that go into the tags are manufactured in Brooklyn, New York, and quality control is being done in Longmont.
New algorithms are being developed almost weekly, including those that will measure how often a cow is eating, chewing and swallowing, or "ruminating" as they say in the ag world.
The technology is being tested in California, Oregon, Colorado and Brazil and HerdDogg has several notable partners, including Land O' Lakes and Shoot Em Up's home operation, the Silverado Ranch east of Colorado Springs in Ellicott.
Gary Lake, who owns Silverado Ranch with Stan Searle, has 10 Texas longhorns in the pilot program. The full herd — 150 strong — graze on roughly 2.5 square miles of open pasture and Lake has attached the plastic dog-bone devices on watering troughs through the range area.
While he's impressed with the biometric data the tags gather, he loves the novelty of its interface with social media apps such as Twitter and Instagram.
"Most people who buy Texas longhorn cattle have just a few head. They love them for their color and horns. These are the kind of people who will really enjoy getting a tweet from a cow as she is heading up to the house from the pasture," Lake said.
While Brandao is a big believer in social media, she has her eye on the worldwide livestock market, which is 2 billion animals strong.
"I'm not a rancher," she said. "But it is so exciting to be around animals who've never had a voice. Maybe this will help ranching become more common again."