Justin Sexten: Wearables?

Cattle grazing
Cattle grazing
(Hall & Hall)

When the term “wearable” is used in the context of precision livestock farming most think about the assorted sensors attached to the animal that communicate with the internet of things (IOT). These sensors provide the producer with data for enhanced decision making or alerts to key behavior changes.

The most common external attachment methods for cattle include ear tags, neck collars, leg bands, and tail clips. Many of the detailed features of these measurements have been previously highlighted but for the new followers a quick review.

Ear tags offer the greatest flexibility in data collection because they also serve as an identification device. When connected to the IOT they may provide behavior insights as well as temperature readings but more importantly combine these data with a visual connection of the animal to operational records. If you cannot identify the animal visually the ability to use the data becomes more limiting.

Ear tags have the widest range of technology applications. Some are limited to a simple electronic ID while others have integrated sensors to geolocate cattle, monitor temperature or determine rumination patterns.

The wearable collars, bands, patches and clips tend to have a narrower range of application due in part to the method of attaching to the animals. These devices collect a range of behavior insights such as grazing, estrus, calving, lameness and health metrics. For external wearables the challenge of incorporating into many operations is attaching the device to the animal or changing devices as battery life wanes. An upside to these devices is the ability to reuse the device on multiple animals.

Internal wearables such as rumen boluses overcome the attachment challenge but are limited to a single animal use that offers a scannable ID and time series measurements of body temperature and rumen pH. Battery life becomes a key to rumen devices due to the longer use in singular animals. Vaginal inserts offer insights to body temperature and estrus detection.

As technology advances the range of sensor applications will continue to expand as will the duration of data collection. Technology offering multiple solutions will prevail, the more data and decisions a sensor can address the greater the adoption rate.

Single point solutions are a challenge to scale in almost every industry, especially technology. A singular problem may be significant but a singular solution often doesn’t justify the cost. If the solution is affordable the secondary problem is the data are not connected to your workflow. Just look at the applications you use today, most solve multiple problems or provide connected solutions and there are likely several used once then abandoned because they were not integral to daily life.

An example of technology solving a simple multifactorial problem is the ability to access your phone while your hands are occupied. Facial recognition makes the problem of unlocking your phone easier while solving a secondary challenge of remembering passwords. What’s this have to do with wearable technology in precision livestock farming? A recent report from Animals by Maria Caria and her Italian coworkers evaluated the ability to automate data capture using “wearable” smart glasses by livestock producers.

Using an augmented reality viewer, the research group evaluated the ability to scan QR codes and communicate information hands free from the farm to the laboratory. The code reading features were used to identify specific animals and feedstuffs. The experiment tested the concept and evaluated a hands-free data entry technique. The automated scanning of animal and feedstuff information freed the operator to use hands for manual work.

The glasses functionality, speed and accuracy was the focus of the report rather than comparing the suitability of specific examples. After reading the report here is an example of how the technology might be applied in practice.

Imagine when pregnancy checking cows this autumn the vet looks at the ear tag as the cow enters the chute capturing her ID. After checking the cow and determining months pregnant the vet looks at one of 5 different codes above the chute to add the data to the cow’s record. The producer running the chute hollers keep or cull and the voice recognition adds a sort to the records.

Connect this technology to the farm data platform and the IOT and as soon as the last cow is worked the marketing sheet is sent to the cloud and auction market and the expected calving dates are recorded for each cow, eliminating written records and data entry.

The experiment also evaluated the accuracy of communication using the glasses technology. Not surprising the larger the text the more accurate the glasses were at recognizing the letters. Poor lighting was a challenge for the video communication as you might expect. The audio test resulted in no miscommunications in conversation at normal speaking voice between the operators. This audio performance alone may be enough to drive adoption while sorting cattle for some operations.

Wearable technology whether for the animal or the operator continues to evolve. Precision livestock management is a data driven approach. Successful technology will reduce the work of gathering the data and focus on enhanced decision making.

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