The Internet of Udders: Vital Herd wants to put chips in cows, save farmers billions of dollars

By James Robinson , written on April 21, 2014

From The News Desk

Connected cows. It sounds all too odd, right? But rolling the numbers, it makes a lot more sense than that connected thermostat or smart lock pundits can’t stop declaring the pinnacle of civilization. Because the biggest potential for the Internet of Things is not in giving consumers remote connectivity for their toaster but bringing new efficiencies at scale to industries that have massive environmental and economic impact on the world.

Austin’s Vital Herd have created an “epill” sensor that is ingested by a cow. It sinks to the bottom of its stomach for the animal’s lifetime, transmitting information out about its vital signs: heart and respiratory rate, digestion information, core temperature and one day soon, the chemical composition of its stomach. It sounds simultaneously like the weirdest app you’ll ever use and the result of a societal obsession with big data that has stretched way beyond where it should.

But in agriculture this technology has the capacity to have a profound impact. According to the USDA there are 93.9 million cattle in America. Vital Herd’s CEO Brian Walsh tells me that 8 percent of production cattle die each year and 30 percent of the herd is usually culled out or retired.  There’s so much more we can know about the health of each cow and huge gain to be had from that information. These gains are potentially worth billions of dollars in savings, according to a report from McKinsey & Company.

“What farmers have to rely on in monitoring their herd is visual clues and observation. That hasn’t changed for a long time. You look for animals with their ears down and heads down. But that physical symptom, comes very late in the progression of any problem,” Walsh says.

As Walsh outlines, the information gained from Vital Herd’s sensors assists farmers in a broad array of ways to help them keep their herd happy and alive. Vital Herd can clue farmers when they need to be on hand for their animals, be it mere stomach ache, heat stress, the perfect time for breeding or when an animal is about to give birth. It reopens the one-to-one relationship farmers used to have with their animals and creates an individual baseline for each cow, looking at enough variables to avoid the risk and bother of false alarms.

Making America’s 94 million cows healthier has benefits that ripple outwards. Lowering the fatality rates of the herd and reducing the time taken to treat sick cows has considerable economic benefit. If Vital Herd cracks the formula around how to analyze the chemical composition of a cow’s stomach, it can help farmers look at feed and milling efficiency, breaking down how cows grow in response to various grains and their various methane outputs.

Many people have leveled this new market movement to be big data’s invasion of farming, but Walsh sees it rather as “precision farming.” Vital Herd are in partnership with undisclosed commercial farms and universities developing their product and are looking to launch before the end of 2014. The company has been existence for two years. Walsh says it took on institutional financing two years ago and is hoping to raises a Series A in 2014.

For crop farming, the sort of technology Vital Herd is selling has become a heated space, with John Deere and Monsanto heavily involved. “It’s hot on the livestock side too, but you just haven’t seen the big acquisitions. It’s not as mature. I know this sounds cliched, but our competition is still the status quo,” Walsh says. Vital Herd’s point of difference is the range of vital signs it can monitor and at a better price point, he says.

The crux of it all for Vital Herd is that success or failure will probably be known quickly. Farmers are a notoriously stubborn bunch of consumers. Walsh says that Vital Herd needs to communicate the benefit it offers instantaneously. All farmers are concerned with commodity prices and the cost of grain. If Vital Herd can’t capture that interest immediately it won’t work. But if it can’t stick the landing, someone else will. The gains from its technology and its potential benefit and application are too great. The pressure is on.

[image via Bert Knottenbeld on flickr]