Okay, maybe not Fitbits exactly, but a Canadian vet is studying how the technology behind our favorite fitness trackers could help beef herds stay as healthy as a... well, cow.
Karin Orsel, a veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Calgary, has been using accelerometers (the technology Fitbits use to monitor a person's activity) to track the health of beef cattle. She and her team attached accelerometers to the ears of 18 cows and kept track of how much time they spent doing things like sleeping, chewing cud, and moving around. The team is hopeful the technology will help farmers in efficiently spotting illnesses.
"By the time the cows show clinical signs of disease, it's quite late in the disease process, up to seven days after infection," Orsel told Inside Science.
According to Inside Science:
"The accelerometer-equipped tags are made by a Dutch company, Agis Automatisering, which has also developed an algorithm that interprets the movements into specific behaviors. Spotting changes in activity, especially in how much time is spent eating and chewing cud, could help identify illnesses like bovine respiratory disease, the most common and costly disease affecting the beef industry."
While the technology could prove useful in the future, more adjustments need to be done: The ear tags were able to identify when a cow was eating feed with 95 percent accuracy, but were only able to correctly identify when a cow was chewing cud 49 percent of the time.
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And while being able to quickly spot a few sick animals in a ginormous herd would be a huge help, algorithms can't make the judgement calls human pen-riders can when it comes to specific treatments, which could lead to overusing antibiotics. "Some animals will get better without treatment, a decision that experienced pen-riders are used to making," reports Inside Science.
The good news and bad news is that not enough cows got sick during the experiment to accurately test the tags' ability to identify sickness—the ultimate goal of the study. "This was unfortunate for us, but fortunate for the cows, I guess," Orsel said.
Regardless of the uneven results, Orsel feels that wearable and remote-sensing technology will eventually become a big part of beef cattle farming.
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Cow image via Shutterstock