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David Simmons' cows wear devices similar to FitBits to track everything from body temperature to activity level – on an iPhone app.
David Simmons' cows wear devices similar to FitBits to track everything from body temperature to activity level – on an iPhone app.

Wearable devices for cows the next level in precision farming Add to ...

Until last year, David Simmons would wake up at 4 every morning and trudge 1,200 feet to his barn to tend to the cows. The 33-year-old, who owns a dairy farm near Corner Brook, followed a strict schedule of 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. milkings, and had to be in the barn early each day to prepare.

But ever since installing the “robots” – a robotic milking system he purchased last October – the cows milk themselves and Mr. Simmons sleeps in. The same “robots” allow Mr. Simmons to check on the cows – who wear devices similar to FitBits to track everything from body temperature to activity level – on an iPhone app, which he browses while making his morning coffee.

“I know what I need to do before I even get to the barn,” Mr. Simmons said. He and his wife, Sara, still work as hard as ever, he said. But now, they work smarter. “I know which cows I need to go look at.”

In Newfoundland, theirs is the first dairy farm to use a robotic milking system – stalls that cows enter and exit of their own will, where lasers and a 3-D camera guide a robotic arm toward the animals’ udders. But across Canada, Mr. Simmons is just one of many who are turning to cutting-edge technology, parking robots and drones in their barns next to plows and tractors to increase efficiency.

In the past, the Simmonses would rely on visual cues to know if a cow was sick: if her eyes looked sunken in, or if her chewing slowed down dramatically. But these signs take days to develop, if ever – cattle are natural prey, so they hide their symptoms to avoid appearing weak to predators.

But now, with each one of their approximately 100 dairy cows wearing a black collar with a little red tracking device, the Simmonses know the minute one of their cows is behaving abnormally. “You know when you start to get a flu … you think you’ve got a tickle or you might have a little ache in your back, but you’re not quite sure?” Mr. Simmons said. “This allows us to help take care of cows before they feel that tickle.”

The Simmonses’ system is made by Lely, a Dutch company, and inside each collar device is a pedometer – which tracks that cow’s activity and chewing – and a transponder. The transponder means that when a cow enters the robot – drawn into the stall by the snacks she receives once inside – the stall “recognizes” the cow and adjusts the settings accordingly.

Much of the technology that the Simmonses use on their farm has been available for decades – Lely first prototyped an early model of the milking robot in 1992. But recent breakthroughs in “wearable” technology – and the development of popular mass-market products like FitBits that track people’s activity and diet – mean the devices are now more reliable and affordable.

In total, the system cost the Simmonses $750,000, which includes renovations to their barn. But the result has been increased milk production and a reduction in the number of staff – benefits that Mr. Simmons says will balance out the cost in the long run.

The technology is meant to address persistent problems in the world of farming: increased cost of production and a shortage of skilled labour. The Simmonses in Newfoundland, for example, have found themselves competing with the Alberta oil fields for the same group of “fly-in, fly-out” workers.

Another big part of the labour issue, experts say, is an aging population. Between 1991 and 2011, the average age of a farm operator rose from 47 to 54, according to Statistics Canada. In the same period, the number of those under the age of 55 dropped by about 42 per cent.

“The people who had a lot of expertise – the older generation – are starting to leave pretty rapidly,” said Andrew Uden, who grew up on a Nebraska cattle farm and is now the chief operations officer at Quantified Ag, a tech company developing wearable devices for beef cattle.

The new technology allows farmers to get by with fewer workers, and help make up for less experience by delivering accurate data directly from the fields, or from the animals themselves.

The trend in recent years has been toward “precision agriculture” – using technology to gather hyper-specific data so farmers can be more efficient in their methods. Farmers, for example, can now use drones to fly over their fields, collecting data on every square inch so that they can customize how much fertilizer or insecticide to deliver to specific areas.

Mr. Uden added that even those young people who do enter farming often come wanting a different type of lifestyle.

“A lot of kids don’t go to college for four, five years, come out with a degree, to go ride a horse and pull sick cattle all day long,” he said.

The Simmonses are examples of this. Both David and Sara grew up on farms, earned college diplomas, and returned afterward to take over the dairy operations at Mr. Simmons’s family farm.

The technological changes mean they can now have breakfast and supper together most days with their young daughter. “Our time is more flexible,” Mr. Simmons said. “If our little girl has an activity or playdate or birthday party, we never miss it.”

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