Dairy Farmer Richard Watson Embraces AI Technology
In the two months since US-based New Zealand dairy farmer Richard Watson strapped 200 remote-control-sized transmitters around his cows’ necks, an artificial-intelligence system named Ida has pinged his phone with helpful alerts: when his cows are chewing the cud, when they’re feeling sick, when they’re ready for insemination.
“There may be 10 animals out there that have a real problem, but could you pick them?” Watson said one morning, standing among a grazing herd of dairy cattle wearing what he calls “cow Fitbits.”
Sophisticated AI technologies are helping reinvent how Americans work, offering powerful software that can read and react to mountains of data and save them time and stress along the way.
But its rollout is also sparking tensions in workplaces as humble and old-fashioned as the dairy farm. That down-home resistance raises a question farmers might be tackling before much of the rest of the workforce: Can new technology ever beat old intuition – even when it comes to a bunch of cows?
The AI that Watson’s farm uses – called Ida, for “The Intelligent Dairy Farmer’s Assistant” – tracks his cows’ tiniest movements through their collars and then graphs and dissects them en masse. Those “real-time cattle analytics” are then used by the AI to assess diet and movement and predict concerning health issues, such as lameness or udder infections.
Standing one March morning among his cows at Seven Oaks Dairy, one of three farms he runs as part of his Hart Agriculture brand, Watson pulls out his iPhone to show off his Ida app. The AI says he has three “potential health problems to be checked” among his herd: Cow #14433 is eating less, while cows #10172 and #3522 are “ruminating” or chewing less, a sign they might feel ill. His herd’s “to be inseminated” count is at zero, as signified by a reassuring green check mark.
At 6-foot-4, with combine-wide shoulders and a New Zealand accent, Watson, 46, looks like a rugby player – which he was, playing in the late ‘90s for the Hurricanes. Shortly afterward, he moved to lead a cattle-grazing research programme at the University of Georgia, where he taught and advocated the increasingly rare craft of letting cows amble about aimlessly on a pasture, eating as they go.
His farm’s cattle – crossbreeds of America’s classic black-and-white moo cow, the Holstein, and New Zealand’s relatively slimmer brown Jersey bulls – spend almost all day grazing on the thousands of acres of ryegrass and bermuda grass that surround his farms. That makes tracking their free-range eating and movement harder than at the average American “confinement” dairy, where cows are kept in stalls and fattened on corn and grains.
Spotting problems the old way required closely watching the herd day and night, “unless it’s really obvious – you know, she’s walking or limping or there are buzzards flying overheads,” Watson said. “Buzzards aren’t a particularly good health programme.”
Original article by Drew Harwell, The Washington Post, National Post, April 5, 2018.
Photo by Kevin Liles.