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Fitbits For Cows? Tarleton State Professor Uses Tech To Track Cattle
Barbara Jones holding up some of the new technology used to track dairy cows.

Millions of people track their activities through wearable devices like the Apple Watch or Fitbit. Now a team at Tarleton State University in Stephenville is monitoring cattle using the same technology. 

Barbara Jones, a Tarleton State professor, is spearheading the project and joins KERA's Justin Martin to talk about their efforts.


Interview Highlights

How the program can help:

There's a few different purposes that we can use these Fitbits for cows. So, if we can better track their behavior, their production, what's going on physiologically with them, then we can better manage them for on the farms and kind of help producers manage their farm. 

How it works:

We actually used two Fitbits to manage our cows, so one that ties into our milk parlor, so we can measure how much milk the cows are producing daily. And then the second Fitbit tracks their activity -- how many times a day they chew their cud and how many minutes per day they are eating, and so we can use those for reproductive purposes and for health purposes.
How the program can help your average farmer:

If they could more easily manage the cow, then it would help them manage their farm better so it would help them make decisions. Simple thing to think about is with reproduction, we have to wait until a cow comes into heat, that means she's susceptible to be bred.

In the past, like if I think about my grandfather, he would watch the cows to see when they were coming into heat, and that takes like an hour a day, and so technology could do that for him, or her, and could free up the an hour a day that [the farmer] could spend on tasks like business management or marketing their milk that could help run their run their business a little bit better.

Other uses for the Fitbit technology:

There is a lot of commercially available technology. We just have two that were used for management purposes, and then I have another technology that I use, or Fitbit that I use, for research purposes.

But there are cameras that are able to detect the thinness and fatness of the cows; they're able to detect how many minutes per day they're drinking, lying time, how long they're standing, getting up and down. They're also able to detect the milk yield, milk fat, milk, protein, somatic cell count, which is a measure of milk quality.

On the response to the technology:

Just for research purposes, these tools are ra eally convenient way to measure behavior where we used to have to do it visually and in video. So for research purposes, this is is kind of awesome. And producers also really think it's awesome too, but they are so economically minded and great business people that they want to make sure that it's the best return on their investment before they adopt.

So everyone's really excited about technologies. I think that it's just been slow to adopt just because of a return on investment.

On using the technology on other animals:

This actually originated in poultry and in swine. So both of those are intensively managed, like dairy cattle, and then [the technology] moved into dairy cattle. So there are a lot of other types of agriculture that are using this just kind of in the last 10 years, it's really exploded within the dairy industry.

Updated at 1:50 p.m.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.