A Corriente cow-calf pair on rangeland in Arizona are monitored by a GPS tracker (pink), accelerometer health tag (blue) and accelerometer ear tag (orange).
Photo Credit:
Colin Tobin

High-tech Cows

Authored on

Technological advances have taken agriculture by storm. From apps on our phones to look at soil types, to monitors in our tractors that can change seeding rates on the fly, many producers use technology to aid real-time management decisions. Now livestock have been donning ‘jewelry’ to better track their location and monitor health and well-being.

The advent of GPS (Global Positioning Systems) allowed researchers to analyze grazing behavior to better inform producers about land and livestock management. Other devices, such as accelerometers and pedometers, have been utilized in the dairy industry to detect estrus and lameness for improved AI (artificial insemination) efficiencies and laminitis treatment. Recently, many of these devices have been improved to interact with antennas, Bluetooth, and satellites to produce real-time results.

Throughout my Ph.D. studies at New Mexico State University, I worked with many real time systems to detect concerns with livestock. We conducted two studies at the Deep Well Ranch near Prescott, Arizona. The first study utilized GPS collars and ear tag-mounted accelerometer sensors to assess animal behavior during a water tank failure. Although the cattle stayed near the water tank until they could drink, while they were deprived of water the accelerometer detected increased movement intensity through pacing around the tank and hooking one another. Utilizing both sensors, we could detect the water outage within one hour of the cattle interacting with the tank.

My second study utilized GPS tracking collars and associated software to determine if there were buddies among the cattle in the herd. The Corriente cattle at the Deep Well Ranch are very independent, with the most-associated animals grazing sites together roughly 3% of the time. We then looked at how changes in associations alter throughout the grazing season. We determined, as the grazing season went on, the cattle ventured farther from water and from each other in search of forages.

A more local use of technology is virtual fence. Several universities and regional cattlemen are utilizing virtual fence to achieve their research and management goals. Researchers in Oregon have utilized virtual fencing to graze firebreaks into the landscape. They noted that dry cows stayed contained into the programmed fence throughout the study while cow-calf pairs would break the imaginary fence line as calves became more adventurous and momma cows were in hot pursuit toward the end of the study.

As technology continues to improve, the market will become more competitive and prices will begin to decline. The applications of these devices will not keep the cowboy off the horse or out of the pickup, but rather expedite water tank repair or treatment of livestock.

Colin Tobin, Ph.D.
Research Animal Scientist