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Don’t worry, the cows will not be left to fend for themselves
Don’t worry, the cows will not be left to fend for themselves

BusinessJune 28, 2018

Pavlov’s cows: Is this remote-control cow system creepy, or the future of farming?

Don’t worry, the cows will not be left to fend for themselves
Don’t worry, the cows will not be left to fend for themselves

A Kiwi company wants to make fencing and farm dogs redundant, creating a collar equipped with audio and vibrational cues that can be remotely controlled from the farmhouse – and measure fertility. But is it good for the cows?

It has a Tesla-esque logo, marketing language swiped straight from Tinder and is backed by Silicon Valley titan (or villain) Peter Thiel.

And Auckland-Waikato based startup Halter is also a typically ambitious tech company; its “Cowgorithim” collar and app system is marketed as a panacea for almost every industry ailment – from giving farmers less drudgery and automating herd movements, to overcoming farmers’ failure to fence off waterways, allowing intense pasture management without increasing fertilisers and also making the constant loop of the artificial insemination/pregnancy process (critical for milk production) more efficient.

The company was founded in 2016 by Craig Piggott, a young engineer who’d already cut his teeth building rockets with Peter Beck’s space company Rocket Lab. Piggott conceived a solar-powered collar, or “GPS enabled intelligent neck band” that would track cows, build a virtual paddock around them and train their behaviour all the while transmitting data, including when a cow is on heat.

The Spinoff caught up with the chief executive officer of the California-incorporated company to find out how it all works, and to ask him what he thinks about the dairy industry practices he’s helping to make (ruthlessly?) efficient.

The Spinoff: Is the “Cowgorithm” a real thing? 

Craig Piggott: Absolutely! It is a technology we have patented that we use to manage the shifting of cows around the farm. It detects a cow’s location relative to where it needs to be and uses sound and vibrational cues to remotely shift the cow.

Halter has won a few awards, including a recent Vodafone Innovation Award at Fieldays. How meaningful are these to the company? Have you had any direct benefit? 

Whilst awards aren’t our primary motivation they do provide a point where we can stand back as a team and reflect on the good work we’ve done. Further, they often provide some publicity which helps get the word out about what we are doing. We had an awesome couple of days at Fieldays and were fortunate to receive two awards which definitely helped to create interest in the company – we ended up with hundreds of farmers indicating they want to trial the technology. 

Halter is currently being used on some pilot farms. What’s the plan in terms of commercialising the technology and getting it out to the public? 

We have been testing on our own private development farm in the Waikato for over a year. With the technology up and running the next step is to roll out our first handful of customers later this year.

How much does it cost to make one collar? What did your first prototype look like, what was it made from? What’s the lifetime of a collar? 

It sits around the neck of a cow. It’s now very rugged and robust, but initially we prototyped with just 3D printed units.  

Piggott and cow and collar. (Image: supplied) 

You’re privately funded. Does that present any challenges? What was it like to raise money? And how much have you got now, and how long do you expect it to last?

We have raised several rounds of capital from both local and offshore investors. We recently closed an $8 million round from investors in Silicon Valley. The round was led by Data Collective, who are also investors in Rocket Lab. Further, Founders Fund (Peter Thiel’s fund) and Ubiquity Ventures also participated in the round. They join existing investors which include Promus Ventures, The Icehouse and Rocket Lab CEO, Peter Beck. 

What is your lifestyle like? And how have you settled on remuneration? 

Being a founder is definitely a roller coaster – every day and every year is different to the last. We’ve been going for almost two-and-half-years, and have gone from an idea to a rapidly growing team of 15 at the last count (seems to be changing weekly!). It’s exciting. Remuneration is easy, any dollar you take from the company is a dollar less to grow with. You need to eat, and be warm, but your best investment is really to leave any further money you could take, in your company. 

What has been the single biggest challenge since inception? 

The biggest challenge we have faced from day one is finding the best people – we know that New Zealand has great talent, but we haven’t quite cracked the code on where to find them!

The idea of a human remotely swiping to control a cow is repugnant to some people. What would you say to them about Halter?  

We understand how some people may have that view. Presently, farmers use dogs, bikes, fences and themselves to guide a cow around the farm. We believe our sound and vibration-based guidance system will be far less stressful. All the farmers we’ve talked to want happy and healthy cows, so don’t want to do anything to jeopardise the health and well-being of their cows. We are simply trying to make it easier for farmers to do what they currently do, and in some cases, help them leverage technology to utilise farming methods that are better for the cow and for the environment.

The app subscription allows farmers to work on farm less, and sleep in more the company says. (Image: screenshot)

I spent some time looking at Halter’s website, and while it tells you a lot about what the product can do, it doesn’t tell you how it does that (that I could see). Why is that? 

From our experience, we have found potential customers are more interested in how the product will help make their life easier rather than getting into the technology, but we often describe the technology when we’re talking with farmers – just as we have below.

Can you explain how does it work? What is the collar doing, and reading, to give data back to the system? And when the collar is activated to move the cow, how does it do that? 

Starting with the theory, the technology is based on Pavlovian or Classical Conditioning – Pavlov had his dogs, we have our cows. Right now, a cow is shifted around a farm using a combination of visual and audio cues – like fences, gates, farmers, dogs and bikes. With Halter, we simply use a different set of cues, audio and vibrational, to elicit the same behavioural response.

At a technical level, we place a device, similar to a collar, around the neck of a cow and create a “virtual boundary” around each cow. We then use sound and vibrational cues applied at particular directional points on the device to move the cow. The system is driven by the schedule, set by the farmer who can use the system to move cows to and from the shed, establish virtual paddocks or break fences and alert farmers when a cow is on heat or lame. We leverage artificial intelligence which helps the system to learn and become smarter over time, whilst the farm becomes more profitable and more sustainable.

Halter claims to have solved the issue of stock wandering into rivers, and polluting them with urine and faeces. Can you explain in detail how this happens? 

Cows are trained to respond to audio cues, in turn this allows the system to guide and fence cows via the device. Virtually fencing a river or a drain for example is actually very easy, it requires reasonably simple algorithms that have been proven in field for over a year. Specifically, the sound is quite quiet, the device is very close to each ear and cows have large ears. More often than not we are unable to hear the cues during a shift, when looking at, or observing the cow. 

(Image: supplied)

There’s some concern with consumers about the dairy industry’s practice of separating cows from their calves, and artificially inseminating them, so we can drink milk. Halter makes this process more efficient, identifying cows which are in heat. What is your view on that concern?

Animal welfare for us is a top priority, detecting cows that are sick or on heat is one aspect of this, monitoring behaviour and giving cows more freedom than a fence is a massive advancement in how we farm today. Small calves are unable to walk the distances that the main herd tends to travel, this is something we are working to improve, not having to place all your cows in one herd improves the options available here. 

Have you been working with vets or animal welfare specialists to develop Halter?

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

We enable farmers to respond a lot quicker to any health issues, and therefore lift the overall health of their herd. We are also able to give cows a lot more freedom than a traditional fence, walk them at their own pace and place them back into an environment that is closer to how they would roam in the wild. The cows that have been using the system are also noticeably friendlier!

Have we reached peak cow in New Zealand?

‘Peak cow’ is really an environmental factor, so if the environmental effects of farming can be significantly reduced then you would likely see more cows. The demand for food in this world is ever growing and dairy is a massive part of that. The real question comes from how we sustainably increase production on farms. 

What is the ideal exit strategy? And what would life after Halter look like?  

Your main options are an acquisition or IPO. Either option would be evaluated against how best it enabled us to achieve our vision. At this stage we are focused on trying to reshape the farming industry.

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