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Heifer Hacks: First Smartphones. Now Smartcows?

06 Jun 2024

What do virtual reality (VR), blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT) have to do with selling a heifer?

You’re about to find out.

In the ever-evolving landscape of U.S. cattle production, emerging technologies are revolutionizing the domestic heifer market, empowering ranchers with innovative tools to enhance productivity and profitability.

Overall, U.S.-raised heifers have demonstrated resilience, quality and market adaptability, making them sought-after assets both domestically and globally. Recent data from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (USDA AMS) collected from domestic livestock auctions, put prices for prime-breeding heifers between $1,200 to $1,800 per head. The average rancher in the U.S. has around 40 head per operation, and even though that’s on the smaller side, you can do the math — that’s a lot of money.

Domestic Market Performance

Demand for U.S.-raised heifers in the domestic market has been strong, driven by factors such as consumer preferences for high-quality beef products, genetic improvements in breeding stock and efficient feed conversion ratios.

Prices for prime-breeding heifers in major livestock auctions have remained stable and have even showed some incremental growth over time, reflecting the consistent demand and quality of U.S.-bred heifers.

Global Market Performance

U.S.-raised heifers have also performed well in the global market, with strong demand from international buyers, particularly in regions such as Asia and South America. The reputation of superior meat quality, thanks to U.S. genetics and breeding stock, disease resistance and overall performance has contributed to the stable overall market.

There are a lot of export opportunities for U.S. heifers, which provides additional revenue streams for producers and has also contributed to overall competitiveness in the U.S. livestock industry. Ranchers have leveraged trade agreements, market intelligence and strategic partnerships to capitalize on global market opportunities and maintain a strong presence in international markets.

In addition to robust markets here and overseas, ranchers are riding a wave of innovation, from virtual reality simulations to AI-driven genetic selection, ranchers are leveraging these advancements to navigate a dynamic market landscape and prepare for a future full of opportunities.

Machines Can Learn Too

While it may sound like a story in a dystopian cowboy drama, the adoption of AI and machine-learning algorithms is transforming how ranchers manage their heifer herds.

Remote data-collection technologies, such as drones and satellite imagery, are playing a vital role in monitoring pasture conditions and optimizing grazing management — it’s no longer just about growing healthy heifers, it’s also about creating information interstates. Drones allow ranchers to survey large pastures quickly and accurately assess terrain, water access and overall vegetation health on the spot. This data is then fed into endless AI-powered databases, like historical weather and climate information, to craft customized rotational grazing, pasture supplementation and land-management strategies.

Genetic Testing and Selection

One of the most significant advancements over the past decade has been the integration of genomic testing in cattle breeding programs. Dozens of companies offer this cutting-edge technology that allows ranchers to analyze the genetic makeup of their heard to identify, and exploit, desirable traits with unprecedented accuracy.

Michigan-based NeoGen offers ranchers genetic testing and sequencing services to help with DNA-specific heard predictions, documentation and management. 

Blockchain and the New Farm-to-Fork Economy

Blockchain technology, yes, the same technology used in cryptocurrencies, is also making waves in the heifer market by enhancing transparency and providing unflappable accuracy throughout the entire supply chain. Consumers are increasingly interested in the provenance of their food, including how animals are raised and managed. Blockchain enables ranchers to provide verifiable information about each heifer's journey from birth to market, building trust and confidence among consumers by producing great heifers and being able to prove it with the data.

Smart Cows, VR and AR

The Internet of Things (IoT) isn’t just for your smartphone or smart speaker anymore, ranchers with connected devices like smart ear tags and health-monitoring sensors are revolutionizing animal monitoring and management. Smart ear tags can track individual heifer health metrics, such as temperature, heart rate and activity levels. Ranchers receive real-time alerts for potential health issues, allowing for timely intervention and improved animal welfare.

A few years ago, a small dairy farm in Russia made news for fitting virtual reality (VR) headsets, displaying warm, green pastures, on their cows during the bitter winter to curb slowed milk production. Well, now ranchers in the U.S. are wearing them too.

One of the coolest trends shaping the heifer market is the integration of VR technology in cattle management and assessment practices. Ranchers are using VR simulations to train their teams on handling techniques, breeding protocols, and safety procedures in a virtual environment, while augmented reality (AR) overlays in the headset that provide real-time data and insights during on-site inspections and animal assessments.

Picture this: you strap on a headset in Denver, and you’re suddenly staring directly at a heifer, in Durand, Wisconsin. Just above the cow, suddenly a plethora of information about her heat status, production history and current health are displayed in the headset.

Massachusetts-based Nedap Inc.’s CowControl system uses smart tags attached to each cow’s collar or hoof to track anything from heat signals and health to how much a cow has eaten and its inactive behavior. Data collected is normally delivered to a farmer’s smartphone or computer where they can remotely see what’s going on in the barn, but with VR and AR goggles the data is brought to the rancher’s field of vision in real time, no matter where they are.

Welcome to the Information Era

This granular data dovetails perfectly with emerging ecommerce platforms and digital marketing tools that open a dynamic customer base and streamline the sales processes. Online platforms connect ranchers directly with buyers looking for specific heifer genetics or production attributes, allowing them to showcase their heifers’ pedigrees, performance data and health records to potential buyers, worldwide, immediately, upon request.

While these emerging technologies bring boundless opportunities for ranchers, there are also challenges to navigate. As we all know, if something is connected to the Internet, then it’s vulnerable to exploitation. The more connected ranchers get, the more important data privacy concerns, cybersecurity risks, and the need for training and support are. As ranchers embrace these technologies, it's crucial to prioritize data security, ethical use of AI, and ongoing education for ranchers and industry professionals as the technology is being deployed. We all know how impossible it is to put this type of genie back in the bottle once its out.

Despite the challenges, ranchers across the U.S. are embracing these innovations with enthusiasm, recognizing the potential to revolutionize their operations and drive sustainable growth. Technology is not just a cool set of tools, it's a catalyst for transformation.

Article written by Allen P. Roberts Jr.


Farmers Hot Line is part of the Catalyst Communications Network publication family.