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Remote Containment Gets Smarter

By Paul Fitzgerald for America's Backbone Weekly

Remote sensor technology is giving farmers new capabilities for managing livestock and vehicles, capabilities that are literally far-reaching. Smart-collars, ear tags and even smart pills are giving farmers the power to monitor their livestock remotely. Sensor-equipped barns can even interact with livestock wearables, controlling movement, feeding and even milking, reducing the amount of time spent in the barn. Remote sensors are even making it possible for farmers to track and view diagnostic data on their tractors. Here's a look at some of the remarkable breakthroughs that are changing the agricultural industry.

Livestock Wearables

Sensor-equipped smart-collars, ear tags and e-pills are providing farmers with GPS tracking data and vital health metrics. Information on heart and breathing rates, body temperature and cud chewing provide farmers with real-time updates on animal health which can help prevent a serious disease outbreak. High body temperature is one of the first signs that an animal is sick. Without remote sensing, a farmer might not be aware that an animal was ill for hours or days after the appearance of initial symptoms. By that time, disease can spread to many animals, potentially wiping out the herd. With e-tags, such as those made by Nebraska company, Quantified Ag, farmers can receive alerts on their computers of mobile devices as soon as an animal's temperature, heart rate or breathing changes, allowing them to isolate the sick animal immediately and prevent the spread of infection.

According to Vital Herd, a company from Austen, Texas, $10 billion is lost annually in America in the beef and dairy industries due to livestock illness and death. They've created an e-pill that is swallowed by cattle and stored permanently in the rumen (one of the cow's stomachs). Vital Herd's pills run at about $50 per year per animal. In addition to heart and respiration rate, the e-pill also monitors pH levels, volatile fatty acids and lactic acid, helping provide a robust view of animal health.

Smart Barns

Even barns are getting smarter. DeLaval, a company that has been wiring smart barns in the United States, uses sensors that monitor environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity and ventilation. They can also equip barns with feeding and milking machines, which read data from smart collars and e-tags. This data lets the machines know when the animals have been fed or milked. Automated gateways to feeding and milking machines are then unlocked, providing a self-guided system which keeps animals on regular feeding and milking schedules. All the data can be monitored from the farmer's computer or mobile device. Prices on DeLaval equipment can be negotiated with the company.

Virtual Fencing

Remote sensing technology is getting so sophisticated that soon farmers won't even need physical fences to contain livestock. The United States Department of Agriculture, along with other researchers and companies around the world, are working on creating virtual fencing technologies. The tech isn't market-ready yet, but soon farmers will be able to create virtual field maps and equip livestock with collar-mounted devices that will mimic the role of electric fences. When animals stray towards their virtual boundaries, electrical and audial stimuli (in the form of mild shocks and unpleasant noise) will deter them from straying.

Smart Tractors

Farmers who want even more analytical power now have the option of getting smart tractors and harvesters. Smart tractors and harvesters, such as those from John Deere, use remote sensors to relay GPS location data as well as diagnostic updates (for example, reminders about scheduled maintenance). They can also help automate plowing and harvesting routes, using GPS mapping to prevent the machines from missing areas or covering areas redundantly, saving an estimated 40% in fuel bills. Prices can be negotiated with John Deere.

Tying it Together with Software

Innovative software platforms are perhaps the key to remote agricultural management. They provide a single place for a farm's remote data to be aggregated, analyzed and presented in workable formats. Farmers can access their data from their computers, Smartphones and Tablets, giving them unprecedented access to data and control over their operations. Most remote sensing solutions for livestock include such software. For instance, data from Vital Herd's e-pills is transmitted wirelessly to the company's cloud-based platform, where it can be accessed by farmers. If one of the animals should show abnormal health readings, alerts (in the form of emails or text messages) are sent to farmers. Likewise, owners of John Deere smart tractors can use the platform to manage their equipment.

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