Startups pitch health-monitoring ear tags as cost-savers for cow producers

An increasing number of cattle ranchers are embracing wireless sensors that clip to cows’ ears and help them monitor the activity levels and feeding patterns of their animals. The tags are paired with software packages that producers can use to analyze herd health over time. Such technology could also improve methods for detecting early signs of disease.
Several companies are angling to grab a piece of the growing market for high-tech ear tags, including Southfork Solutions, Precision Animal Solutions and Quantified Ag, according to the Wall Street Journal. The companies say their technology can save livestock producers 15% in medication costs per animal.
Many of the new systems are still in beta testing, but they’re already overcoming resistance from skeptical farmers. Southfork, for example, monitors the number of trips taken by cows to feed troughs, sending alerts to farmers about animals that aren’t eating enough and may be sick. One ranch hand participating in the pilot test once estimated that 12 animals needed medication, but using Southfork’s system, he was able to determine that only two cows were sick, according to the WSJ. The producer, then, avoided unnecessary labor and drug costs.
Animal health giant Zoetis ($ZTS), which has been expanding its presence in the market for mobile technology, acquired Southfork’s technology earlier this year for an undisclosed sum. It’s one of several initiatives the company has undertaken to provide high-tech tools to farmers. Last year, Zoetis opened the Centre for Digital Innovation in London, where scientists are developing technology aimed at allowing farmers in the U.K. to create an electronic health record for every farm animal there.
Such investments may seem counter-intuitive, since Zoetis profits mostly from sales of drugs, including animal antibiotics. Jon Lowe, who runs Zoetis’ cattle business, told the WSJ he’s not worried. Livestock and poultry producers are already cutting back on antibiotic use, in response to new FDA regulations and consumer demand. “I don’t think we ultimately lose in the long term,” Lowe told the WSJ.
Sanofi’s ($SNY) animal health division, Merial, is also expanding into mobile technologies. In January, the unit–which is in the process of being acquired by Boehringer Ingelheim–partnered with the Georgia Institute of Technology to develop a range of connected devices aimed at improving animal health.
Just how much health-monitoring ear-tag systems will cost food producers remains to be seen, since most of the companies developing them have not set prices yet. Quantified Ag, which tracks the mobility and temperature of animals, is currently charging $18 per animal, according to the WSJ.
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