Smart collars training smarter cows…
Shift, manage and monitor your herd remotely - we’ve summed it up fairly concisely, but how we do that may require a little more paper and a sharpening of the pencil. How are we able to shift a cow to and from the milk shed with the click of a button? Essentially, we train cows to respond to sensory cues which help them understand where they can and cannot go, a method based on the theory of Pavlovian Conditioning. Now, it’s likely your list of questions is long, so we’ve brought in our Head of Rural, Chris, who oversees all on farm training to give you some answers.
You say that you use sensory cues to guide cows… how does that work?
Like any animal, cows learn behaviours through the use of positive and negative reinforcement. This technique is commonly known as Pavlovian Conditioning, whereby certain stimuli such as sounds, touches and smells are paired with a conditioned response in order to elicit a desired behaviour.
If you think about the way we farm today, farmers use a multitude of different cues to shift cows or keep them in a particular zone. To put it really simply, Halter replicates these cues and places them on a collar in the form of sound and vibration.
Vibration can be seen as a positive reinforcer, enabling us to shift cows around the farm as well as indicating to a cow that she is moving in the right direction. You might like to think of vibration as a farmer walking behind their cows to shift them up to the shed! Sound on the other hand helps a cow understand she is moving in the wrong direction or outside of the allocated zone. Currently on the farm an electric fence is the only real means available for farmers to keep their cows within a particular boundary; we instead use sound to replicate a fence line with a pulse used during the initial training period to help a cow understand the meaning of sound. Once the girls are trained we combine sound cues with vibration and we have the ability to guide cows around a farm, keep them out of waterways and set up virtual paddocks and break fences.
How quick is the training process? Do all cows learn or do some just not get it?
Cows are extremely quick to respond to sound, within a couple hours of wearing a collar cows learn to stay within a static boundary. It takes a little longer for them to associate vibration with positive cues, however we are currently seeing this happen within a week. In general onboarding takes a week, however this process is continually being modified and improved.
To date we haven’t come across any cows that we couldn’t train! Some learn faster than others but due to the fact that cows are herd animals, the slower ones tend to follow and learn from the faster cows.
How do you ensure that the training is safe and ethical?
We’ve been working with animal ethics committees from the start and continue to work closely with them, along with vets and professors in this domain. Welfare is our top priority and our founding vision is to unlock the connection between animals and humans to create a better world, with the hope of not only improving the welfare of cows but other animals in the future.
We are employing a number of systems to ensure our technology is never harmful to a cow, for instance we have hardcoded mechanisms in place that will shut down a collar should anything out of the ordinary happen, for example a cow getting spooked. We have also considered the training process itself and will begin training softly until a cow becomes more comfortable.
We want to dramatically improve the welfare of cows and will never compromise their wellbeing.
Will Halter work on other livestock like sheep and beef cattle? And what about calves?
Absolutely. Beef cattle would be simple - it just requires a slight change in use case. Sheep would require a collar redesign to fit their small fluffy necks and, no, they are not too stupid! I am confident that the fundamental techniques will work on pretty much any mammal. Pavlovian conditioning is a concept that appeals to very basic animalistic instincts that all mammals, and most likely many other types of animals share.
In terms of calves there is no reason that Halter wouldn’t work for them, we’d just need collars small enough! Although we are currently focused on dairy cattle I see no reason why Halter wouldn’t work on other livestock in the future!
Setting up a virtual break fence, shifting cows automatically or drafting a single cow with the touch of a button sounds like a rather crazy concept, but we hope this has given you a touch of background and understanding to it all. We’ll leave you to train your dogs, but trust us when we say - we’ve got the cows covered.