Smart collars training smarter cows…

 

Halter’s Head of Rural - Chris Bloomfield

Halter’s Head of Rural - Chris Bloomfield

In previous blogs we’ve taken you over how we detect heat, we’ve walked you through our connectivity on the farm, but how on earth do we manage to shift a cow to and from the milk shed with the quick click of a button? This month we’ve brought in our Head of Rural Chris. Some refer to Chris as the cow whisperer, others just call him Chris, call him what you like but through the work he’s doing with cows he’s about to make life on the farm a heck of a lot easier.

You say that you use sound and vibration to guide cows… how does that work?

Like any animal, cows learn behaviours through the use of positive and negative reinforcement. This technique is commonly known as Pavlovian Conditioning, whereby certain stimuli such as sounds, touches and smells are paired with a conditioned response in order to elicit a desired behaviour.

If you think about the way we farm today, farmers use electric fences, dogs, yelling etc. to shift cows or keep them in a position - to put it really simply, Halter replicates these cues and places them onto a collar in the form of sound and vibration.

You might like to think of sound as the electric fence or negative reinforcer, indicating to a cow that she is moving in the wrong direction or is moving outside the area she should be in. Vibration on the other hand can be thought of as a positive reinforcer such as the milk shed or fresh grass, indicating to a cow that she is moving in the right direction. We can finally combine these “negative” cues with “positive” cues and we have the ability to guide the cow to anywhere we want on the farm.

Training a cow to respond to Halter must take a while? And do all cows learn or do some just not get it?

Cows are actually extremely quick to respond to sound, within a couple hours of wearing a collar cows learn to stay within a static boundary. It takes a little longer for them to associate vibration with positive cues however we are currently seeing this happen within a week. In general onboarding takes about a week however this process is continually being modified and improved.

To date we haven’t come across any cows that we couldn’t train! Some “get it” faster than others but due to the fact that cows are herd animals the slower ones tend to follow and learn from the faster cows.

How do you ensure that the training is safe and ethical?

We’ve been working with animal ethics committees from the start, and continue to work closely with them along with vets and professors in this domain. Welfare is our top priority and our founding vision is to dramatically increase the well-being of cows.

We’re employing a number of systems to ensure our technology is never harmful to a cow, for instance we have hardcoded mechanisms in place that will shut down a collar should anything out of the ordinary happen, like a cow overreacting. We have also considered the training process itself and will begin training softly until a cow becomes more comfortable.

We want to improve the welfare of cows and will never ever compromise their wellbeing!

Will Halter work on other livestock like sheep and beef cattle? And what about calves?

Absolutely. Beef cattle are easy - it just requires a slight change in use case. Sheep would require a collar redesign to fit their small fluffy necks and, no, they are not too stupid! I am confident that the fundamental techniques will work on pretty much any mammal. Pavlovian conditioning is a concept that appeals to very basic animalistic instincts that all mammals, and most likely many other types of animals share.

In terms of calves there is no reason that Halter shouldn’t work for them, we’d just need collars small enough! Also, what’s great is calves won’t fit underneath a virtual fence….

Although we are currently focused on dairy cattle I see no reason why Halter wouldn’t work on other livestock in the future!

Setting up a virtual break fence, shifting cows automatically or drafting a single cow all with the click of a button sounds like a rather crazy concept, but we hope this has given you a touch of background and understanding to it all. We’ll leave you to train your dogs, but trust us when we say - we’ve got the cows covered!

 

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