Throw away that inactive eyesore of a tag you are currently using and replace it with a model that tracks every movement your animal makes
It all started when Darren Wolchyn couldn’t find his Buttercup (cow) one day. He knew he just had to do something about it.
Darren decided it was time to arm Buttercup (the cow) with a tag so he knew exactly where she was at all times. He designed a GPS tag and collar and called it Bluebell, a name we are sure Buttercup would approve of.
Darren went on to create an agritech start-up company called Smart Paddock that is now arming farmers with Bluebell GPS tags and collars for their cattle, producing real time alerts on where they are at any time.
In addition the tags can check to see if they have enough food and water and whether the herd has travelled too far. It has been supported by Microsoft startups initiative and uses Microsoft technology.
Using the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and data and analytics, the company has developed their GPS tags and collars to be solar powered.
Apart from the obvious benefit of knowing where a herd is through the ease of an app, the tags also provide further behavioural insight to the farmer that help them understand the animal’s health and if it needs attention.
The system also interprets where an individual animal is in relation to its social group and the rest of the herd, and also monitors accelerometer data for signs of calving.
The capabilities of the technology means the company has also been working with government agencies who are doing research on calving mortality. The data collected from the devices alerts the researchers when the animals are actually calving and also detects for how long.
The cattle industry is big in Australia. We have almost as many cattle as people. Add to the 24.7 million cattle in Australia, the 189,000 people who work in the red meat industry and the $15 billion gross value of the sector shows it’s a big business.
Like any big business it faces challenges – not least is farmers knowing what’s up with Buttercup – where is she, what’s she doing, has she enough feed and water, is she calving? Farmers also want to understand if their herds are at risk from attack by wild dogs or cattle thieves, or facing biosecurity threats.
Darren Wolchyn, founder and CEO of Smart Paddock can take away a lot of apprehension from beef producers with Bluebell tags and collars. They are solar powered and have GPS tracking built-in as well as accelerometer and temperature sensors. They work off a regular Microsoft cloud-based analytics platform.
Biometric data is collected on the tag which operates as an Internet of Things sensor. The animal’s location can be found using GPS and data collected and analysed using Microsoft’s cloud.
The tag uses a sensor to measure temperature that provides a great deal of information to the farmer.
For example a combination of raw data includes – temperature, accelerometer data and GPS – and when captured over time provides a good indicator of whether an animal is sick or calving.
Cloud based machine learning interprets the data for the farmer.
Darren already had the right experience before Buttercup disappeared. He used GPS technology to monitor the movement of golf carts as part of a fleet management system in his native Canada.
When he moved to Australia, he decided to try using similar technology to track and monitor cattle movements.
With support from Telstra’s Muru-D accelerator program and the Microsoft for StartUps initiative, Smart Paddock has continued to add functions and just released the latest version of its solution with a very low cost Bluebell tag.
And while the initial focus is on cattle, the solution could also be used to monitor sheep or any other livestock.
And as Smart Paddock’s technology runs on the Azure cloud – it could be exported anywhere in the world. Darren expects his first overseas markets will be the US, Canada, then South America.
Here is the background and long version
Data on the solar powered tag is uploaded to the internet through LoRaWAN gateways. These can collect data from tags within a 15km radius. For very large properties LoRaWAN gateways would be set up at watering points where cattle regularly frequent.
Smart Paddock is currently testing the use of helicopter or drone mounted gateways able to cover hundreds of thousands of hectares.
The data is used to locate each individual steer via GPS with satellite internet used in remote areas where there is no mobile coverage. The location alone can then be made available to the farmer via a mobile phone or app, and additional data also surfaced if needed.
Wolchyn says that the scale and reach of Microsoft Azure made it the clear cloud candidate. “We need to be able to pull in data from these animals in real time and do analysis on it. So we need that very highly scalable and global infrastructure like Microsoft could offer us.”
Smart Paddock is also exploring how it can make further use of Microsoft IoT technology as well as edge computing, which will allow on-farm processing.
According to Wolchyn; “Being part of the Microsoft for Startups program allows us to spend more resources than we could afford and really trial different things and test different services from Microsoft to determine what’s the best approach for us.”
In terms of connectivity, LoRaWAN gateways to the internet are currently being used; to access the information farmers also need internet connectivity.
However Wolchyn said that the company is also looking at how it might be able to use Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to provide services for farms without mobile phone coverage.
“One of the things we’re really looking at is if we could drop these types of gateways down on the farm and they can be solar powered and satellite connected. You could literally drop them anywhere out in the in the world basically.
“So we’re really starting to look at using low Earth orbit satellites for backhaul connectivity,” he says.
While being able to locate cattle using GPS is important to farmers, it’s the array of additional insights and analytics that delivers the major value, says Wolchyn.
Analysing how far an animal is walking to find water and making that information instantly available to a farmer can be immensely useful. Understanding if a steer is moving properly can help farmers assess its health. Knowing when a cow is about to calve is really important.
The system interprets where the cow is in relation to its social group and the rest of the herd, and also monitors accelerometer data for signs of calving.
Wolchyn explains that; “We’re working with government agencies, with the NT Department of Primary Industries on a calving project. They’re doing research on calving mortality and seeing why calves die out in the outback.
“They needed someone to help track these animals down to do the research so they approached Smart Paddock. We are using the data we’re collecting from our devices to alert them when the animals are actually calving, detecting how long they are calving for.”
If the calving seems to be taking too long the farmer can head out to assist the process. Even a 5% reduction in calf mortality could have a huge financial impact for farmers, and represent a significant improvement in animal health and wellbeing.
The apps that Smart Paddock has developed have been designed to operate online and offline, as farmers will regularly work in areas with no phone or internet connectivity.
When the farmer is within range Wolchyn explains that, “It’s an alert-based system, so we are detecting issues whether they just stray outside the paddock and get out of the fence, then we send an alert, or if we detect that an animal is down or there could be an injury or illness with the animal, the system will send an alert to the farmer.
“They’ll open it, get their text alerts, click on it, open our app, see where the animal is.”
If there is the risk of flooding or bushfire, knowing exactly where a herd is can be critically important.
While Smart Paddock is still enhancing the system it is being trialled on 15 farms and properties with about 1,200 cattle tagged. When 24.7 million cattle are tagged, and it could very easily happen, Darren Wolchyn will be a very rich man.
At present the focus is on livestock, but Wolchyn believes the system could become part of a broader smart farm management system, adding in extra data for analysis about everything from water levels in dams and troughs, to farm equipment and vehicles.
“The other big thing we’re looking is biosecurity in the future. So if you have an instance where we’ll be able to detect illness and illnesses and diseases to certain level, if we see an outbreak in this area.
“This could be an early warning system,” adds Wolchyn.
“It’s really about gathering the biometric information about the animal, it’s location, what it’s doing, its status, it’s behaviours, it’s interaction with other animals.
“Because they are very social animals, we can take this data and provide relevant and actionable insights to not just improve farm efficiency and long-term sustainability but also the animal’s own health and wellbeing.”