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Bovines online: Farms use AI to monitor cows

SAN FRANCISCO -- Is the world ready for cows armed with artificial intelligence?

No time to ruminate on that because the moment has arrived, thanks to a Dutch company that has married two technologies -- motion sensors and AI -- with the aim of bringing the barnyard into the 21st century.

The company, Connecterra, has brought its IDA system , or "The Intelligent Dairy Farmer's Assistant," to the United States after having piloted it in Europe for several years.

IDA uses a motion-sensing device attached to a cow's neck to transmit its movements to a program driven by AI. The sensor data, when aligned repeatedly with real-world behavior, eventually allow IDA to tell from data alone when a cow is chewing cud, lying down, walking, drinking or eating.

Those indicators can predict whether a particular cow is ill, has become less productive, or is ready to breed -- alerting the farmer to changes in behavior that might otherwise be easily missed.

"It would just be impossible for us to keep up with every animal on an individual basis," says Richard Watson, one of the first four U.S. farmers to use IDA since it debuted commercially in December.

Watson, who owns the Seven Oaks Dairy in Waynesboro, Ga., says having a computer identify which cows in his 2,000-head herd need attention could help improve farm productivity as much as 10 percent, which would mean hundreds of thousands of dollars to his family.

"If we can prove out that these advantages exist from using this technology ... I think adoption of IDA across a broad range of farming systems, particularly large farming systems, would be a no-brainer," Watson says.

Yasir Khokhar, the former Microsoft employee who is the founder and chief executive officer of Connecterra, said the inspiration for the idea came after living on a dairy farm south of Amsterdam.

"It turns out the technology farmers use is really outdated in many respects," he says. "What does exist is very cumbersome to use, yet agriculture is one of those areas that desperately needs technology."

Even without AI, sensors are helping farmers keep tabs on their herds.

Mary Mackinson Faber, a fifth-generation farmer at the Mackinson Dairy Farm near Pontiac, Ill., says a device attached to a cow's tail developed by Irish company Moocall sends her a text when a cow is ready to give birth, so she can be there to make sure nothing goes wrong. Moocall doesn't use AI -- it simply sends a text when a certain threshold of spinal contractions in the tail are exceeded.

While she calls it a "great tool," she says it takes human intuition to do what's right for their animals.

"There are certain tasks that it can help with, and it can assist us, but I don't think it will ever replace the human."

-- Information for this article was contributed by Marina Hutchinson, Teresa Crawford and Carrie Antlfinger of the Associated Press.

SundayMonday Business on 04/15/2018

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