It all started with a simple idea.
Neil Helfrich, a Sherwood Park inventor, had a moment of inspiration when his wife brought home a puppy in 2007. The dog had a microchip implant, which identifies the animal but can’t track it if it runs away. A device able to do the latter, Helfrich realized, would help producers like his cousin Sheldon Archibald, an Irma-area rancher.
It took a few years of R&D, but Helfrich eventually created a wireless rumen bolus, which sends radio signals from an animal’s stomach and allows it to be tracked.
“Think of it like a cellphone that can sit inside the stomach of about approximately 150 different type of animals,” said Helfrich.
The bolus can work in cattle, bison, elk, goats, sheep, and even camels or giraffes.
If a rancher has 500 cattle roaming across his or her property, all of the boluses will be networked together. This allows data to jump from one animal to another, so if one animal is out of reach of a cellphone tower, its data can be relayed via its herd mates. The data will then display on the rancher’s computer, cellphone, or tablet.
“You can be halfway across the world and you can be checking on your livestock,” said Helfrich. “You can make changes to the programming of the bolus as well. Everything can be done wirelessly.”
His technology uses a long-barrelled device placed in a cow’s throat to insert a bolus inside a cow’s rumen.
“It’s kind of like a little pill that is given to them,” he said.
About one inch wide and 2.5 inches long, a bolus can withstand a decade’s worth of digestive juices. In addition to thwarting rustlers, measuring temperature fluctuations can help predict sickness or fertility cycles. There are other electronic boluses on the market, but Helfrich’s is unique because its patented design (similar to Weeble Wobble toys) allows it to stay upright and his technology doesn’t require expensive hand-held scanners or readers.
“Because there are radio frequencies being sent to and from the bolus, I needed it to stay in an upright position even when the animal is moving,” he said.
Helfrich initially tried to create a better RFID tag, until he read about boluses, which changed his entire direction.
“I realized that I didn’t want it in the ear tag, but in the stomach because that way it is tamper-proof,” he said.
The bolus can only be removed when the animal dies.
“Once the animal goes down beyond a certain threshold, you know the animal has been killed and the bolus will send out an alert,” he said.
The devices, marketed by Helfrich’s company The Wandering Shepherd, cost US$5 each. There will also be a fee for each data transmission of between one and five cents, he said.
Helfrich, who is currently taking pre-orders, said he’s received inquiries from Alberta, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., including one from one of the bison ranches owned by media mogul Ted Turner.
“We’re just getting the word out right now and seeing the interest in where we’re going to start setting up the networks,” he said.