The Internet of Animals has arrived. No, not like cat-stalking zucchini gifs and skateboarding bulldog snaps (those are so 2015). Across the country, farmers are building actual connected networks of cows, pigs, and chickens. Using everything from microphones, accelerometers, and GPS trackers to temperature, glucose, and skin conductivity sensors, farmers can now track and monitor their flocks and herds with the flick of a finger.
Over decades of agricultural industrialization, technology has enabled farmers to raise thousands of animals together, increasing scale and profitability. Even as global demand for animal products increases (by as much as 40 percent in the next 15 years!) the number of farmers raising animals continues to fall. And with 9 billion mouths to feed by 2050, industrial ag is here to stay—along with the cameras, microphones, and body sensors that will serve as a farmer’s eyes and ears.
Livestock wearables come in a few shapes and sizes, from ankle bracelets to belly belts to ear tags. But they’re all trying to solve the same problem: How to keep animals healthy in high-volume livestock operations. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions increase the chances that animals get sick or injured. Today’s tech can help farmers intervene earlier, provide more targeted care, and even encourage healthier behavior from the outset.
Those are all good things, both from an animal welfare standpoint and an economic one. Healthier animals produce more—eggs, milk, pork cutlets, whatever. On the other hand, a lot less of those things would make for healthier humans, not to mention a healthier planet. Wearables aren’t going to solve agriculture’s biggest problem: how to feed the world without destroying it in the process. But depending on how people use them, they might be a good start.
Wearables Around the Watering Hole
While consumers aren’t all jumping to go full vegetarian, they are generally demanding more transparency and better treatment for livestock. Take eggs, for instance. By 2025, experts expect seven out of 10 eggs eaten in the US will be laid by a cage-free chicken. But because caged operations have been the status quo for so long, most veteran commercial farmers have never had to worry about understanding chicken behavior.
Without tracking technologies, it can be daunting to know where to start. Cage-free commercial aviaries are loud, dusty, metal boxes of feathered chaos. Birds are free to come and go as they please, though they don’t all avail themselves of the fresh air. Wearables help farmers dissect the disorder of 20,000 clucking, bobbing heads—understanding what makes each chicken tick, and spotting when they’re getting sick or injured.
One of the most common injuries for a chicken is a broken keel bone—where the wing muscles attach to the breast. To see if he could use wearables to spot the ailment, animal welfare researcher Michael Toscano recently attached radio frequency identification tags to the hens in his flock. When the chickens pass in front of an antenna, it recognizes the chip tied around each chicken’s ankle. Toscano discovered that chickens have distinct routines. “It was quite stunning to see their daily activity graphs side by side,” says Toscano. “Every single day each bird did the same things without fail, like a little alarm clock.” It’s an ongoing study—his team is taking X-rays of the birds over the next year to understand how injuries impact each bird’s activity levels.
To see what kinds of insights actual farmers might glean from this kind of data, Toscano is pairing up with John Brunnquell, who owns the largest free-range egg operation in the US—every day, his chickens lay over a million eggs. Next week Brunnquell is beginning a three-part experiment to test whether or not chickens in three of his farms are more likely to graze if they have cover to protect them from the sun and flying predators.
He’s rigging up cameras to take hourly photos of his pastures, each dotted with a shade wagon that moves around the yard. Then he’ll count the birds, looking for patterns in their shade-seeking behavior. “Right now we put the shade structure out and we know birds go there,” says Brunnquell. “But we don’t know how many, how long they stay, what their activity is like while they’re there.”
The next phases of the experiment will add Toscano’s radio ID tags to track the chickens’ movements in and out of the aviary, and then GPS trackers to trace their exact routes. With such consistent behavior patterns, Toscano thinks it wouldn’t be hard for farmers like Brunnquell to build out a system that automatically flagged signs of disease or injury based on movement patterns or body temperature. Farmers could treat animals earlier and offer more targeted care—for example, limiting parasite treatments to birds that venture outside. If weaker birds tend to choose feeders closer to the ground, farmers could up the calcium levels on just those areas.
“The ability to track individuals in these systems is a game changer,” says Courtney Daigle, who directs Texas A&M’s animal behavior and welfare lab. “There’s only so much you can know by looking at a group of animals. These technologies give a window into these animals’ lives at a much deeper level.”
For some farmers, the trouble is less about finding an individual in a crowded barn, and more about finding them at all. Beef cattle roam over huge pastures for many months of the year, and ranchers have to drive or ride for miles to find them—wasting hours of labor and gallons of gas.
Melissa Brandao has been working on this problem for a while. First, her company HerdDogg tried an autonomous rover that could go out and report on the far-flung herds. But the Apple alumni (she specialized in building online services, like eWorld, during the early days of the internet) soon realized farmers needed a simpler solution. So she focused her energies on a wearable the industry was familiar with: the ear tag.
Her creation can stream each steer’s location, body temperature, and microclimate data to their owner’s computers or smartphones. So far she’s mostly been doing small pilots in California and Colorado, with farms that compete on sustainability instead of scale. Correlating how much each animal eats and drinks and roams around with yield and prices allows smaller farmers to take a more precise approach to their grazing strategies. For them, it’s made the smartphone as integral a piece of farm equipment as the shovel or tractor.
Then there are farmers who go a step further, adopting a technology that automatically intervenes when their animals put themselves in danger. About 10 percent of commercially raised piglets die before they’re weaned—half the time, because they’re accidentally crushed to death when they snuggle up to their moms for warmth. Matthew Rooda was in college and working as the manager of a massive swine-raising operation in Iowa when he first faced the scale of the crushing losses. “Thousands were dying just on our farm,” he says. They were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every quarter. “Pigs are smart, we can condition them to do all kinds of things. I thought, ‘Why can’t we teach them to not crush their babies?’”
So Rooda invented a sow wearable to do just that. Worn around the belly, it’s a cross between a shock collar and fitness tracker. It collects data on when the pigs get up to eat and drink, while ambient temperature sensors help farmers keep their barns warm enough for piglets to stay cozy without getting too close to mom. The system also has a listening component housed in a nearby monitor; if it hears any sounds of piglet distress it automatically sends a vibration to mom to get her to move. If she doesn’t, a few seconds later it sends a mild electrical shock.
The device employs audio processing algorithms to identify piglets in danger of a smooshing. Using machine learning, Rooda’s team trained the algorithm on hundreds of samples of porcine death squeals, so it can pick them out from more routine snorts and grunts. According to Rooda’s testing, the shock is enough to get sows to stand about 75 percent of the time. And the pigs appear to be learning—needing the shock less and less to get moving. Right now that evidence is anecdotal, but Rooda’s company, SwineTech, is partnering with the University of Iowa to conduct trials this fall.
SwineTech will officially unveil next week at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, but it’s already inked some deals with a few mid-size US pork producers. Rooda says it’s helped that he’s a farming kid from Iowa; he’s got barnyard cred to back up his tech. But he also sees his early success as indicative of the larger shifts toward precision agriculture. Farmers, with their tight margins and long time horizons, can’t afford to take risks just because something seems cool. So the fact that they’re beginning to invest in wearable technologies for their animals means that the farm animal Fitbit isn’t just a fad. It’s the future.Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.