Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Technology, Intuition, and Working with Cows

With cow pedometers, robot milkers, and "bovine fitbits," AI technology is transforming livestock agriculture. The dairy industry is at the forefront of this wave. Many believe these innovations can help farmers compete as they face tough economic realities. But some farmers aren't impressed. They think good old intuition works best when dealing with animals.

Old-school proponents say they can understand their cows by watching closely and "looking in their eyes." As one farmer said, "You can only handle so many text alerts. There is no substitute for watching your animals."

Tech enthusiasts note that the mounds of data save them time and stress. They can be more efficient, and a portion of their work can be done while looking at a computer or smartphone screen. Transmitters beam information to them at all times of the day--even if herds are spread over large areas. As one rancher said, "Buzzards aren't a particularly good health program."

The latest sensors can monitor cow movements through their collars and then graph them for "real-time analytics." As the promos state, AI can track seven cow behaviors: walking, standing, lying down, eating, chewing, drinking, and idling.

That is impressive, but in a more tactile way, I was able to gauge all those activities about our milk cow--and that was decades ago when I was a low-tech teenager. All I had to do was step into the barn for an early-morning milking of our lone Guernsey, and all those behaviors were obvious. Granted, it's a lot easier to monitor one cow, but if she was in her stubborn lying down mode, then I knew immediately that the milking session would be rough. I could add more behaviors to the AI list of seven. If Bossy was "agitated" about my milking technique (or lack of), her quick right leg kick could send the bucket flying. And I didn't need a sensor to tell me that she had a sense of humor when she swept her long, muck-covered tail over my head as I was working away on the three-legged stool.

The most advanced tech is now dealing with bovine health and reproduction. Sensors note when cows are in heat, and artificial intelligence is being used to manipulate male or female populations in the herd--including techniques for artificial insemination and embryo transfer technology. This does go way beyond what we old-fashioned milkers could ascertain--no way was I going to pry into Bossy's sex life.

I've been off the farm for a long time, but I asked our office cattle expert about her opinion of the "tech versus intuition" issue. Kylie is our communications specialist, but she also has cow cred as she was raised on a farm, she took specialty ag courses at Iowa State, and she still goes to the home place to help with the beef operation. Her take: Tech can be helpful--markets, weather, remote video cams, and more. But intuition is important, and she takes it all one step further. In her opinion, it's the animals that have the real intuition. "They can judge a human. For example, I had a show steer named Buck that behaved like an angel when my dad was around. He turned into a devil when I tried to get him to do anything."

Maybe that explains my relationship with Bossy. That old cow used intuition to hack into my system, and she didn't need any tech innovation to throw me some shade.

by dan gogerty (top pic from and bottom from  Flicker-CushingMemorialLibrary)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Importance of University Research

A Collaboration of Recent Studies and Discoveries

Every day we reap the benefits of discoveries made or knowledge advanced from public and private research universities. They continue to produce discoveries that improve the health of living organisms, grow our economy, provide an innovative hands-on learning environment for students, and enhance our day-to-day lives in profound ways. CAST truly appreciates the work of our 14 member universities that complements our mission of serving as a catalyst and voice for credible, balanced, science-based information. The goal of these universities--developing the minds of future scientists and agriculturalists paired with their internationally respected research programs--makes their work extremely valuable. In this week's blog we highlight a few recent findings from an array of universities. As colleges prepare for summer break, CAST would like to continue to encourage collaboration through educational membership, free student membership, or other forms of association.

From Moo to Brew: This professor is working to turn
dairy waste into a flavorful drink with an alcoholic kick.
Dairy by-product beer could soon be found on tap near you.
Protein Process in Plants: This Cornell study pinpoints exactly where a key protein forms before triggering the flowering process in plants.

Straight from the Kitchen: NC State Extension and NC State University have launched a new educational video series that aims to reconnect people to the food, landscape, and agriculture of North Carolina.

Keeping Crops Safe:  Purdue University has designed a bag to allow for the storage of grain in a more safe and efficient manner--with a much larger goal of putting an end to hunger.

From Feed to Fever (video):  Kansas State University is involved in researching the African swine fever's ability to spread through imported feed and feed ingredients. 

Making Microbiology Fun: This university partnered with a local museum to give introductory microbiology students a unique service learning opportunity. 
Breeding Better Beans: These grad students
have begun field tests on a very rare commodity--
high-yield, disease-resistant bean varieties
that can thrive on organic farms.

Algae Forestry:  These scientists believe algae may be the key to unlocking an important negative-emission technology to combat climate change.  

Online Grocery Shopping (video):  ABC News and UC Davis post-harvest extension specialists compared three same-day delivery services by placing simultaneous orders and judging their results.

Product with Potential: A wind-powered grain drying system developed by students at the University of Kentucky could improve grain quality and human health in Africa

Injectable Bandage:  This Texas A&M study uses a common thickening agent, obtained from seaweed, to design an injectable bandage--stimulating the structure of human tissue.  

Fertility Research (video):  An Iowa State professor studies how factors such as environmental stress, obesity, and chemical exposure affect female fertility and reproduction in both humans and animals. 

Space Gardener: This University of Florida student is developing imaging procedures for a GoPro with hopes of using this technology to grow food on Mars.

Pig Health:  Researchers say recent interest in the microbiome and its effects on infectious disease has expanded to include pathogens primarily affecting the respiratory tract.

Frog Findings (video): This University of Nevada disease
ecologist went on a search to help prevent frogs from
, but instead he found clues on predicting
and responding to something much bigger.
Beet Synthetic Dyes:  A team of Cornell food scientists has discovered a way to process natural beet juice to replace synthetic red dyes in a variety of foods.  

Entomology Experiment: This doctoral student in entomology recently spent time in China learning more about new ways to attract beneficial insects to the habitat around farmers' fields.  

By: Kylie Peterson 
(images from:,, and

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Magical Animal--Recent Articles about Pigs

Many folks agree with Homer Simpson's astute observation about pigs: "A wonderful, magical animal." But whether that respect comes because of their intelligence, their beady-eyed cuteness, or the way they transform into bacon, hog production certainly raises issues--some of them controversial. Recent news items include a variety of porcine topics, and this list will keep you up on some of the many developments in Pig World.

Odor in the Court:  A North Carolina court case pits corporate hog producers against citizen plaintiffs. The pig farm neighbors say their lives are adversely affected by odor and other issues. The corporations call it a "money grab."

High-rise Hog Heaven?  Chinese developers already have 7-story pig confinement--and they might go as high as 13 floors. The facilities have cooling systems and virus filters; they say the installment costs will be compensated by the need for fewer workers. We assume the pigs will not have to learn how to take an elevator. 

Sow Research:  The National Pork Board awarded funding to Iowa State University to study a sow mortality syndrome that has increased in recent years.

Zoonotic Virus?  In China, an outbreak of SADS--swine acute diarrhea syndrome—has killed more than 24,000 baby pigs. Some think bats could be the source.

Pig Poop Power:  Back to North Carolina where a company is producing pipeline-quality biogas from hog farms. 

Pigs at Play:  Spanish scientists say that environmental richness (toys and games) and a herbal compound (hmmm, can we call it "pig zen"?) reduce stress and improve pig welfare
I grew up on a pig farm, so I know how they relieved stress when I was a kid--they stood around grunting and chortling every Saturday as they watched us pitch their manure into a spreader, and they occasionally turned "free range" as they cleverly escaped from our rather porous pastures and feedlots. I admire those with the patience and fortitude to raise pigs, but I'm not sad to leave my hog herding days behind. These blogs refer to links and observations about pig production.

(1)  Pigs That Fly, Use Toys, and Drink Beer

(2)  Head 'Em Up, Move 'Em Out, Hog Style

by dan gogerty (top pic from pig.jpg, middle pic from whybuilding.jpg, and bottom pic from