What Has Silicon Valley Flocking to America’s Heartland?

It’s Friday night, Josh Goeser’s got his Wranglers on and his phone is blowing up. But the 27-year-old doesn’t even look. Already headed for the door, he knows better than to keep one of his girls waiting when she’s in the mood. Seems the young buck’s got his timing down, too: An impressive 57 percent of his herd is pregnant.

Did we mention that the text message came from a fertility monitoring device that alerts the Wisconsin rancher when one of his cows — not girlfriends — is ovulating? And that he then has only a 12-hour window to make the magic happen? Yeah, we probably should have. We should also mention that ever since Goeser equipped 1,140 cattle with these Fitbit-esque wearables, pregnancy rates have tripled. Doting pet owners using technology to track Fido’s every step isn’t exactly pioneering, but it’s taken longer for big data to reach the last frontier. Now that Silicon Valley has infiltrated America’s heartland, though, ranchers are able to track everything from when their heifers are horny to whether they’re feeling blue. And it may prove to be the biggest revolution to the cattle industry since “humane slaughter.”

Seemingly overnight, livestock electronics have grown to occupy the largest share of a $1.1 billion animal wearable industry, according to a report by IDTechEx, a global emerging-technology market research firm. That number includes pet gadgets and wildlife trackers, but the real money is in 3-D printed cowbells, cattle collars with geofencing and open-range drones that can take an animal’s temperature. Within the next decade, experts predict this field will more than double in size. Indeed, the potential is “phenomenal,” says Bill Hammerich, CEO of the Colorado Livestock Association.

It’s also another notch for the computer overlords in the battle between human intuition and technological wit. For hundreds of years, pen riders have identified sickly cattle by roaming the pastures looking for “ears down, head down.” Texas A&M ag professor Joe Paschal likes to say his wife has a “mother’s eye.” Yet according to the USDA, the $60.8 billion cattle industry loses an additional $5 billion a year due to dead livestock — and that doesn’t take into account the cost to human health when those diseases spread to the supermarket, like what happened last year with the mad cow outbreak in Texas. So even if these cowboys (and -girls) are pretty damn good at it, people are rarely as accurate as science.

Case in point: Earlier this year, Goeser woke up one morning to 300 alerts on his phone. His herd’s MooMonitor e-collars, which detect fertility, heart rate and rumination levels, had picked up that something was off. Turned out the food was spoiled. With the early notification, his family was able to act before their entire 2,200-head herd was decimated.

And this is only the beginning. Three-year-old Vital Herd, out of Austin, sells a smart pill that lives inside a cow’s gut for its life span, conducting virtual doctor visits every 30 minutes that measure stomach acidity, hormones and other vital signs. Nebraska-based Quantified Ag uses RFID ear tags to continuously collect data like temperature and heart rate. Vital Herd costs about $50 a year per animal, whereas the MooMonitor Goeser uses rings in around $170 — but that’s in addition to the $4,500 up front to install the infrastructure. On the other hand, a lucrative cow can pump out more than $6,000 worth of milk a year. And when steers get the ax, they sell for around $1,900, says Paschal. Still, profit margins in this industry are slim, so right now only the largest beef and milk producers can afford to upgrade, says Quantified Ag founder Vishal Singh. Considering factory farms have already taken over most of the beef market, this may turn out to be the final nail in the coffin for mom-and-pop ranchers.

For consumers, however, it will likely mean cheaper hamburgers — and a direct window into the production process. The prospect of diners being able to request a digital health record of their steak isn’t far off. Neither is putting this technology toward genetic breeding. There’s already talk of using the massive amounts of data collected to identify ideal animal traits for GMCs: genetically modified cows. For now, though, let’s tackle one ethical quandary at a time. They save money, but do barnyard wearables actually improve animal quality-of-life as they claim to (remember the whole humane slaughter thing)?

Alex Hershaft, president of D.C. activist group Farm Animal Rights Movement, doesn’t think so: “It’s like rearranging the death chairs on the Titanic. What difference does it make what their temperature is if they are going to die anyway?”

Source: OZY, Taylor Mayol
Photo: Goeser demonstrates the use of his mobile cow-monitoring application. (Sara Stathas for OZY)