Skip to main content
May 7, 2010

When the cows go moo

A-CowDEVON, England – So here’s an odd one to ponder for the weekend – could cows have mobile phones? Last week I got to stay on a dairy farm for the weekend (city kids need to smell some country air from time to time). Whilst there, we got a tour of the milking parlour and, even though I’m no stranger to such places, I was surprised to see the technology in use. But I was also struck by the potential that adding mobile phone technology to the process could help improve things further. Read on after the jump.

Each cow in the herd wears a special collar containing a unique transmitter, so when she enters the milking parlour, this passes a bunch of information to the milking system (a bit like the one written about here). First and foremost is efficiency. Thanks to the cow’s transponder, the computer knows how much milk each one is producing. As such, it then dictates how much feed she’s allowed to have whilst in the parlour. In a game of efficiency, and when there are 160 cows to feed in the parlour twice a day, this matters a lot over the course of the year.

One of the key parts of dairy farming particularly when, like the herd I visited, it’s a “closed herd” (where all the animals are bred on the farm, not bought in) is ensuring the cows get pregnant at the right time. Now, the transponder on the cow knows more than just how much milk the cow is producing. It also measures “activity” and will alert the farmer when the cow shows abnormal activity. Why? Well, it seems cows are creatures of habit, except when they’re “bulling” (the term that describes when they’re ready to become pregnant). When a cow is “bulling” the farmer has a 12 hour window to get her inseminated. Time is of the essence. Thankfully, given her two visits to the parlour every day, there’s an opportunity for the farmer to be alerted. Previously, the herd would need to be observed multiple times daily to find out when cows were ready. Not much fun when you consider that much of this type of activity happens at night time.

So what does this have to do with mobile phones? Well, having a transponder which sends information twice a day is one thing, but why couldn’t it be instant? Why couldn’t the cow have a mobile device (probably without a screen and keypad) instead of a simple transponder. Mobiles already have accelerometers, which would help with the activity detection, and GPS which would help with locating the cow. Add in a sim card and data could be sent to the farmer instantly. Using SMS, the farmer could get a text message telling him what’s happening with a cow as soon as it happens. I’m not talking about reinventing any wheels here, really. All the technology already exists, simply by thinking about it (and using it) in a different context could make a big difference.

This isn’t just about efficiency, it’s also about animal welfare. Unlike humans, cows can’t tell us when they’re sick, it’s up to farmers to observe and know their cows and then get the vet when help is needed. Having better information, faster, can help farmers better look after the animals, and ensure they’re having a healthier, happier life.

My knowledge of cows doesn’t stretch very far and what I’m writing about is only what I learned at the weekend. However, to me it seems like a very obvious use case for mobile devices, going beyond what we’d consider them for today. Why couldn’t an animal have its own mobile phone? It might not be able to read text messages, but the information the phone could provide the farmer could be invaluable. The only question that remains, obviously, is whether the cow’s mobile should have a 3.2-megapixel or 5-megapixel camera.

Picture by Jelles