The 'Internet of cows' is taking over farms across the world
SAO PAULO - BovControl, a startup with the ambitious goal of reducing global hunger by helping farmers maximize meat production, lives inside a São Paulo skyscraper that also houses big names like Microsoft and Monsanto. But the heart of the company's operations lives far outside the city center, on farms in Brazil, the United States, and a variety of other countries.
The five year-old startup is trying to create what founder Danilo Leao calls "the internet of cows."
Leao began taking care of his family's land at age 15, manually tracking animals with a spreadsheet and ear tags. Bovcontrol makes that process easier, speeding up meat and dairy production for farmers. The company hopes that the app's efficiency will help ameliorate global hunger.
To use BovControl, farmers first input a cow's basic data in an app, including birth date, medication, vaccinations, and weight. If the farmer happens to be offline, the information is saved until they re-enter cell service and the data can be uploaded to the cloud.
Farmers can use any technology they have for logging cow data - from a basic ear tag to a Bluetooth-equipped smart collar that can collect data like temperature and location. Eventually the app takes over, crunching the data and using artificial intelligence to make predictions about the cows.
If a farmer notes that a cow is pregnant, for example, the app can predict the date of birth, providing push notifications as it gets closer. If the app notices that a cow isn't producing as much milk as it should, it can signal to the farmer that it should consider removing the animal from operation.
The more sophisticated the farmer's tools, the more powerful BovControl is. If a farmer has a Bluetooth-connected weight scale, for example, the device can sync to the app, making it easy to see when a cow is ready for slaughter (based on its weight).
BovControl is used on thousands of farms across the world, but it first launched in Brazil, a country where there are more cows than people. During a visit to BovControl's Brazil headquarters in 2015, Leao Skyped me in to a demo of the app on a farm in Rio Grande, a municipality in the southern part of the country.
Bruno, a farmer on an 830-cow farm who had been using the app for a few months at the time I spoke with him, said it changed the way he does his job. "I used pen and paper before. I do a lot of vaccinations, and the app gives me tools to collect that data and keep track of expiration dates," he says. "When a cow gives birth, I can capture the animal's growth and figure out when I should sell it."
At Bruno's scale, the app costs 15 cents per animal per month. Most of the farms that use BovControl are small to medium sized; bigger farms often have strict processes in place, so it's harder for them to add a new system into the mix.
BovControl's user base is growing 3% to 5% each week, but the company has encountered roadblocks along the way. When I visited the headquarters, Leao told me it was hard to find qualified Brazilian candidates to work at BovControl. That's because, in a country that has long been plagued by economic uncertainty, most people crave the security of working at a large company.
In the US, Leao says he has gotten offers from Harvard and MIT graduates to help out for free. In Brazil, he offers a lot of stock options to sweeten the deal. When I met with Leao, the company had 10 employees. Today, it's up to 16.
In addition to selling to farmers, BovControl also recently inked a deal with Aliança da Terra, a nonprofit in Latin America that certifies sustainable farms. The NGO is building its own mobile application on top of BovControl's platform, allowing dairy corporations to get a better look at the history of the milk products they sell.
Google is also funding the Aliança da Terra platform for 500 ranchers in the Amazon, and one of the largest food retailers in the world, Casino Guichard-Perrachon, is recommending BovControl to its Brazilian beef suppliers.
The internet of cows is slowly but surely becoming a reality.
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