Technology, Intuition, and Working with Cows

With cow pedometers, robot milkers, and “bovine fitbits,” AI technology is transforming livestock agriculture. The dairy industry is at the forefront of this wave. Many believe these innovations can help farmers compete as they face tough economic realities. But some farmers aren’t impressed. They think good old intuition works best when dealing with animals.

Old-school proponents say they can understand their cows by watching closely and “looking in their eyes.” As one farmer said, “You can only handle so many text alerts. There is no substitute for watching your animals.”

Tech enthusiasts note that the mounds of data save them time and stress. They can be more efficient, and a portion of their work can be done while looking at a computer or smartphone screen. Transmitters beam information to them at all times of the day–even if herds are spread over large areas. As one rancher said, “Buzzards aren’t a particularly good health program.”

The latest sensors can monitor cow movements through their collars and then graph them for “real-time analytics.” As the promos state, AI can track seven cow behaviors: walking, standing, lying down, eating, chewing, drinking, and idling.

That is impressive, but in a more tactile way, I was able to gauge all those activities about our milk cow–and that was decades ago when I was a low-tech teenager. All I had to do was step into the barn for an early-morning milking of our lone Guernsey, and all those behaviors were obvious. Granted, it’s a lot easier to monitor one cow, but if she was in her stubborn lying down mode, then I knew immediately that the milking session would be rough. I could add more behaviors to the AI list of seven. If Bossy was “agitated” about my milking technique (or lack of), her quick right leg kick could send the bucket flying. And I didn’t need a sensor to tell me that she had a sense of humor when she swept her long, muck-covered tail over my head as I was working away on the three-legged stool.

The most advanced tech is now dealing with bovine health and reproduction. Sensors note when cows are in heat, and artificial intelligence is being used to manipulate male or female populations in the herd–including techniques for artificial insemination and embryo transfer technology. This does go way beyond what we old-fashioned milkers could ascertain–no way was I going to pry into Bossy’s sex life.

I’ve been off the farm for a long time, but I asked our office cattle expert about her opinion of the “tech versus intuition” issue. Kylie is our communications specialist, but she also has cow cred as she was raised on a farm, she took specialty ag courses at Iowa State, and she still goes to the home place to help with the beef operation. Her take: Tech can be helpful–markets, weather, remote video cams, and more. But intuition is important, and she takes it all one step further. In her opinion, it’s the animals that have the real intuition. “They can judge a human. For example, I had a show steer named Buck that behaved like an angel when my dad was around. He turned into a devil when I tried to get him to do anything.”

Maybe that explains my relationship with Bossy. That old cow used intuition to hack into my system, and she didn’t need any tech innovation to throw me some shade.

by dan gogerty (top pic from and bottom from  Flicker-CushingMemorialLibrary)

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