Texas A&M researchers are outfitting dairy cows with the latest in wearable tech.
Researchers at Tarleton State University’s Southwest Regional Dairy Center in Stephenville have found that digitally tracking dairy cows with Fitbit-like technology can help farmers better understand the animals’ sleeping, eating and health habits.
In Texas, the nation’s fifth-largest dairy producer, the tech can help foster happier lives for the animals, according to researchers. And happier cows mean higher yields for farmers.
“When I think of my grandfather who had a dairy farm back in the early 1900s, he milked five cows. And so he could really know each individual cow,” said Texas A&M’s Barbara Jones. “But now as our herds get larger, it’s really hard to know each individual cow.”
Jones, director of the Southwest Regional Dairy Center, has been researching the technologies with multiple companies since studying for her master’s degree. The center she leads is the largest university dairy operation in the Southwest and, while it’s a Texas A&M research effort, it’s connected administratively to Tarleton State University.
The center has put two tracking devices on every cow. One device monitors how long the cows are eating, laying down and, much like humans, how many steps they take. The second device is attached to a network that allows researchers to track how much milk each animal provides. They also can alert farmers to illness and free up time for farmers to take on other tasks.
While somewhat comparable to fitness trackers for humans, the technology is known more specifically as “precision dairy monitoring.”
Jones has traveled around the world talking with farmers and agriculture professionals about the emerging technology and says they’re receptive to its benefits.
“Dairy producers are very progressive,” she said.
Scientists have been developing wearable tech for cows for a while now. But Jones said farmers have been somewhat slow to actually adopt it in their everyday business. About 10% of dairy farmers have adopted wearable tech, but that number is expected to rise as labor costs go up.
Naturally, one of the barriers to adoption is the cost to farmers. Devices can range from $50 to $100 each, depending on factors like a farmer’s proximity to a seller. The average dairy farm in Texas has around 1,100 cows, meaning outfitting the whole herd can be fairly costly. Farmers also have to buy accompanying software and other equipment, which can cost several thousand dollars.
A large farm with 5,000 cows could be looking at a $500,000 expense, she said.
Farmers want to see return on investment when adopting new technology, which can look different depending on the farm. Where the technology has proven to be particularly helpful is on farms struggling with cow reproduction, Jones said.
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