Much popular discussion about facial recognition software recently has centered on Apple’s facial-ID security systems—but agricultural scientists have been working toward an entirely different use for the technology. At the end of January, Minnesota’s Cargill announced that it was partnering with the Dublin-based machine-vision company Cainthus in order to develop facial-recognition technology that will monitor the health and well-being of dairy livestock.
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This proprietary software will rely on attention to images to monitor both faces and animal hides. Their technology, Cargill and Cainthus contend, will make it possible to use computer-imaging software to monitor food and water intake, body temperature, resting and sitting time, and environmental conditions in order to keep better track of animal health and welfare.
“This technology will dramatically change how farmers take care of their animals,” Tim Loesch, animal nutrition communications director, Cargill, tells Food Quality & Safety. “This technology will allow farmers to treat animals and take care of those with the greatest need, rather than always focusing on an entire herd. This allows farmers to have a more surgical and specific approach to make sure animals are cared for.”
The new technology takes several seconds to identify individual cows and store their data, which extends to pattern and movements. An artificial intelligence-based algorithm derives information about food and water intake, behavioral tracking, and health status, and sends alerts directly to farmers. Ideally, this should provide farmers the opportunity to meet health challenges preemptively and also to adjust feeding and water quickly.
“We are enthused about what this partnership will mean for farmers across the world,” Cainthus president and co-founder David Hunt said in a press release. “Cargill is a natural partner for us, given their focus on bringing a world-class digital capability to the market and their understanding of how technology will truly help farmers succeed. We think this partnership will be a game changer for farmers because it will allow them to efficiently scale their business.”
Loesch says that the partners were focused on marketing the technology in the U.S. and Europe at the present time, but planned to make their product available to markets worldwide over the next twelve months.
Not everyone is enthused about it, however. Mark A. Kastel, co-founder of Wisconsin non-profit farm-policy research group the Cornucopia Institute, worries about the decline in human engagement in farming.
“We are moving farther and farther away from true, ethical animal husbandry where families have a connection to individual members of their herds,” Kastel tells Food Quality & Safety. “Many family-scale farmers have cows with names, not numbers. For dairy farmers, who see their cattle every day, small nuances can tell them when they are dealing with a health problem and can treat them early on to maintain their quality and length of life.”
Kastel questions the humane ethics of animals being seen as “production units” fit to be worked upon by robotic milkers, or by workers who do not own or know the animals.
“As that happens, something is lost as a society,” he says. “We are all responsible, directly or indirectly, for the quality of life of the animals who contribute to our health and enjoyment as we eat every day.”