Algorithms getting ready to saddle up at feedlots

Calgary tech company says its system can track every cow in a pen and know how it’s doing

Using ultra-high-frequency RFID tags and antennas at feed bunks and waterers, HerdWhistle monitors cattle for behavioural changes that could be an early sign of illness.

Checking each pen for a sick animal at a feedlot is like the world’s worst game of Where’s Waldo — oftentimes the cattle mostly look the same and if you’re not quick enough to spot the sick one, the consequences could cost you that animal.

But a new ultra-high-frequency RFID monitoring system is taking the guesswork out of pen-checking for feedlot operators and potentially one day, for cow-calf operations.

“Currently today, we are 100 per cent at the mercy of our pen-checkers’ ability to visually see that sick animal,” said Simon Cobban, manager of feedlot solutions at UFA. “They have no tools today to help them, other than visually identifying the sick animals — and sometimes that’s a little like trying to find Waldo in a pen.

“Whenever you have to rely on something that’s 100 per cent a human effort, any tool that you can give them to assist them and make their job easier and more effective is absolutely worth looking at.”

UFA recently acquired the Canadian rights to HerdWhistle, developed by Calgary tech company A4 Systems. It monitors the behaviour of individual animals — such as how often they go to a feed bunk or waterer, and how long they stay. The frequency and duration of visits allow the system to establish a baseline for ‘normal’ behaviour for each animal. As soon as an animal falls outside the range of normal behaviour, it’s flagged by the system and pulled for further investigation.

“One thing we know for sure is that as an animal gets sick, it has a behavioural change,” said Cobban. “Once you’ve established the normal behaviour for that animal — and that happens very quickly — we can then identify when that behaviour changes. Through that behavioural change, we can now identify animals that would have a higher probability of being sick.”

Early detection and treatment can dramatically lower both mortality and medication rates, says Simon Cobban, manager of feedlot solutions at UFA. photo: Supplied

And the earlier you can detect that sick animal and pull it for treatment, the better the prognosis. The developers of HerdWhistle say it is able to detect illness three to five days (and in some cases, up to seven days) before there are visible signs.

“The key to it is early detection and early treatment. It makes for faster recovery and healthier animals,” said Cobban. “Now we’re treating those animals that much sooner, and we can decrease mortality by up to 25 per cent and morbidity, treatment rates, and transmissibility in the pen as well. As a result, we’re looking at potentially lower treatment rates over time.”

It also means that sick animals are less likely to slip through the cracks due to human error or a shortage of quality labour, he added.

“Rather than your pen-checkers trying to identify those sick animals, now they just have to go out and find them,” he said. “Now instead of them being overwhelmed because they’ve got the whole entire feedlot to look at, they can target the problem animals and just pull from the list they were given.”

That also helps with inventory control. If an animal loses its tag or ends up in the wrong pen, the system will recognize that its behaviour has changed — regardless of the reason — and flag it for followup.

“We can almost give you 100 per cent inventory control,” said Cobban. “You’ll know exactly where every animal is at any point in time, and if an animal disappears for whatever reason, it will be flagged, and you can go and search for that animal.”

Traceability is also improved within the operation.

“We can trace the movements of that animal, all feed additives and medications throughout the feedlot.”

Other lower-frequency RFID systems in use today offer some of these features, but tend not to be as effective or efficient as HerdWhistle’s ultra-high-frequency system, said Cobban.

“With that technology, you can’t read two tags side by side, for example, and the read ranges on them is very poor,” he said. “The higher the frequency, the better the technology can get for reading the tags. Your read range gets further out and you can read more than one tag at the same time.

“If you put it at the feed bunk where there’s 100 head of cattle, you can read all 100 head at the same time.”

The HerdWhistle hardware and algorithms are still being refined by the developers and as such, the system is not yet installed in any feedlots. But Cobban said he believes feedlot operators and even cow-calf operations will see the benefit of it.

“In theory, it will absolutely work, and in practice, we’ve seen that it works,” he said. “So now we’re taking it out into a much larger scale to prove the concept out.”

UFA is currently offering financing for the hardware and will waive the monthly system fees for the first three customers.

“We’re looking to get those first three on board and signed up and using the system so that we can further refine it,” he said. “For the first three guys in, it’s not going to cost them much to do it.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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