Living in a country that derives the majority of its GDP from primary production, I’m pretty interested in the opportunities and threats that technology introduces to agriculture. I’ve spoken at length about the very real threat that synthetic protein creates for both dairy and meat producers, and the fact that it isn’t a question of if this threat will come to bear, but rather when.

The reality, however, is that synthetic protein won’t end the existence of natural ones, and technology can be applied to traditional milk and meat production to drive better outcomes in these traditional industries. At the recent Huawei Asian Innovation Day, I got the opportunity to learn about an experiment that Huawei is running in conjunction with some Chinese dairy farms to apply hi-technology to a very old industry – that of animal husbandry.

Huawei worked with China Telecom and Yinchuan Aotoso Information Technology on an IoT-based Connected Cow project. Aotoso provided cow-dedicated information collection terminals and the cow information management platform. Huawei provided its narrow-band IoT network and supported integration of the devices and solutions. China Telecom, as a system integrator and service provider, offered services to dairy farms.

A quick animal husbandry 101

In the dairy industry (and who would have thought that you’d be reading about the sex life of cows today?), they say that to produce milk the cows must mate, but how much milk they produce depends on whether they are mating at the right time. To ensure timely mating, cow estrus must be accurately monitored a traditionally manual and inefficient process. Some 65% of the cows will be in estrus anywhere from 9 pm to 4 am, and it is hard to find a pattern. The somewhat random mating time is hard to track, and it is hard to tell how long they will be in estrus for. Not being able to accurately track when the cows are in estrus greatly reduces yield. In industrial farming, cows have no privacy and when a cow is in estrus, dairy farmers need to be notified immediately.

Existing estrus monitoring systems

There are some existing digital estrus monitoring systems but these tend to rely on short-range communications technologies. What this means is that these systems require expensive base stations to be deployed on the farm – with all the attendant problems around electricity supply, maintenance and coverage breadth. For this experiment, Huawei deployed its own narrow-band IoT system that resolves many of these issues.

Solution Highlights

The narrow-band IoT technology allows for a five-year terminal battery life, provides up to five kilometers of coverage, and allows for simultaneous data reporting by a large number of terminals. The narrowband devices are pretty rugged, and in this deployment have simply been hung around the cows’ necks – a quick and simple process.

The bottom line

This is only a trial, but these initial results look pretty promising. So far, Aotoso has increased the cow estrus detection rate from 75% to 95%. In a commodity industry where achieving the best outputs given fixed inputs, this improvement should yield results. What I’d be really interested to see would be an experiment that combined this connected cow approach with other data driven insights – nutrient inputs, grass growth and water application rates for example. Clearly agriculture has a big impact on the world and is a major contributor to global warming as well as other deleterious environmental impacts. By harnessing data around agricultural systems, these negative impacts can be reduced, and the positive economic benefits of agriculture can be increased.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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