Could a solar-powered collar for cows be New Zealand’s next big agritech business?
Business is Boring’s Simon Pound caught up with Craig Piggott, the founder of Halter.
Agritech is big business in Aotearoa, and Craig Piggott, founder of Halter, wants his tech to shake up the farming industry. It’s a solar powered collar for cows that uses sound and haptics to measure the animal’s vital signs and guide them to better pastures.
The Halter collar can get rid of the need for fencing, help protect waterways and wetlands, optimise land use, give farmers peace of mind and allow their cows to live happier lives. Piggott, an ex-Rocket Lab engineer, has grown the company to a team of over 130, and has been named a Forbes 30 under 30 leader – and the company hasn’t even left the North Island yet.
Piggott joined Business is Boring with Simon Pound last week to talk about the Halter journey, how it’s giving farmers back some precious hours and its potential for a huge positive impact on the environment.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Simon Pound: There’s that great expression, “hardware is really hard”. Tell us what you were initially setting out to build, and how that went?
Craig Piggott: There are a lot of inefficiencies on a farm, a lot of challenges and a lot of ways that farming has to improve. When you look at what we would call “first principles”, which is like how grass grows and how healthy cows make more milk and all that type of stuff, you realise the ways that farming is done today doesn’t align with these principles – it can be a lot better.
Everything on a pasture-based dairy farm revolves around the cow. That’s really the core of everything. When you look at a farm you see fences and gates and paddocks, and that’s all to manage the cow. So we started thinking: how do we monitor a cow? That’s not too hard. People monitor humans with things like Fitbits. Then the real question was, could you actually just train a cow?
Cows are smart. They are trained to a routine, they’re trained to time. When daylight saving changes, they’re all standing at the gate an hour early, because they really are smart. So the question becomes can you use software to train a cow? If you could, that would pave the way for a whole new way to run a farm. You could be a lot more efficient, you could make it a lot more natural for the cow – reduce impacts on waterways, environments and the animal itself.
Right, because most of the infrastructure on a farm is to try and get the cow to do what you want it to do at the time you want it to, but if you could get the cow to do it directly, that obviates the need for a lot of that?
The good thing about working at that fundamental, first principles layer is the impact you have is throughout the entire operation. You’re not a gadget or a piece of tech that sits on the top. So on farms we’re really at the core of these operations, and farmers use it every single day surrounding the most critical parts of their farm. And if you can really make a difference on one farm, then you’ll get a few more farms and next thing you’re starting to make a difference in an industry. And that’s really the end goal and why we get up in the morning.
So how’s it used day-to-day, and what are some of the key benefits of using Halter?
There’s two pieces of technology that you see. One is the collar that’s on the cow, and one is the app. They’re the two front-facing pieces, the collar and the app.
A collar goes on every cow, and really we’re trying to train and track these cows. And the outputs fit into a few categories, so the first one is labour. Labour is really tricky on a farm, we’re thousands of roles short, and that was only made worse with Covid. Then there’s productivity or pasture, which is how you graze your grass. If you’re not a farmer it’s not super intuitive, but the growth of the grass is really sensitive to how you graze it – graze it too hard, there’s no leaf left to grow, and leave it for too long, it goes to seed. The third one is around the animal itself, and things like tracking its health, heat detection, which is tracking fertility, and things like that.
At the highest level we save about 30 hours a week on a farm, we increase production or grass growth, we grow and utilise more grass which is really good for a farm both environmentally and for productivity. And the cows are healthier, they get sick less and if they do get sick, we pick it up earlier.
One other big benefit, which is growing, is around the environment. If you can shift a cow around a farm then you can keep a cow out of waterways or sensitive environments and you can run a more precise operation. So there’s less wastage, lower inputs, less emissions. It does touch every part of the operation on the farm.
So how does Halter keep the cows where you want them to be?
The collar learns everything about the animal, and then uses Pavlovian conditioning. So think Pavlov’s dogs, you ring a bell, the dog drools. You’re associating an action with the cue, that’s exactly what this collar is doing. It trains the animal, and then once an animal’s trained that period is usually within a couple of days, they really rely on the collar as their source of truth and for their cues, rather than the visual cues that they have today.
At the moment, cows are trained to fences and gates and bikes and dogs, but instead of that, and instead of humans running around in paddocks chasing these animals, you have this collar, which is more consistent, it’s more reliable, and that results in much calmer, much more natural behaviours from a herd.
What would your advice be for someone who’s got a really interesting perspective on something and is thinking “could this be a business?”
Most ideas seem like bad ones at the start, there’s all these reasons why it shouldn’t work, but it’s not your job to come up with the reasons why it won’t work, it’s your job to think about how it possibly could. And what if? If you’re going to come up with excuses as to why you shouldn’t do it, then that’s just the wrong mindset. Fix the mindset, and then just keep going. We often say, wake up every morning and move the ball forward. And if you do that enough times you start to really get some traction.
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Article originally posted by The Spinoff.
Business is Boring is created in partnership with The Spinoff.