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Technology brings augmented reality to your dairy barn

Company overlaying data and reality in new system to help information management

Imagine looking over your barn full of dairy cows and being able to tell instantly which ones were in heat and which ones are up and down in feed consumption or milk.

There are ways to do this now, with a phone or a tablet computer feeding information to the farmer as they move through the barn.

However, Nedap has taken the concept to a whole new level with an augmented reality system that brings digital information into the farmer’s field of vision while viewing cows.

Why it matters: There’s massive volumes of information generated by data-gathering technology in dairy barns. Companies are coming up with creative ways that make efficient use of that information for farmers.

Nedap, the Dutch agriculture technology company, competes in the busy dairy farm sensor market and its systems are sold by leading equipment players Lely and GEA and genetics company Alta Genetics.

Their sensors work around the neck and leg of cows and create information on activity, heats (mounting behaviour and sniffing and licking), rumination and eating behaviour.

The Nedap system also has units placed across the barn that track cow location and allow farmers to find the animals they need. It also aids in creating information on groups and when and how cows eat.

The HoloLens allows wearers to see what the computer shows them, but also their surroundings.
photo: Nedap

For example, if a farmer changes something in the herd’s nutrition, “you can see what the change in management is doing for cow behaviour,” said Rudy Ebbekink, a marketing manager with Nedap, at the World Dairy Expo. Nedap was giving show visitors a look at its augmented reality system that brings together all the cow data in a visual form using the Microsoft HoloLens.

The HoloLens is a technology being developed by Microsoft aimed at the business market. It is not yet for sale. Nedap got a hold of the HoloLens as part of the product’s develop program.

Ebbekink says Nedap has the program ready to go and has tried it on several farms in Holland, but it is waiting for the commercial version of the HoloLens to be for sale.

How it works

The user has to wear the HoloLens, a somewhat heavy set of virtual reality glasses. It allows them to see what the computer shows them, but also their surroundings.

A farmer with the Nedap Cow Control system will be able to look over the herd and cows will show up with an icon that indicates if they are in heat. The user can situate their vision over the red arrow and a white dot will grow. They can then reach out with their fingers to choose the dot, which will give them more information on the cow and its reproductive information.

Rudy Ebbekink wears the Microsoft HoloLens headset that allows a view of data within a farmers’ line of sight.
photo: John Greig

The cow model the company had set up at the World Dairy Expo also had a green arrow show up, indicating a health issue.

The cow locator is already helpful for farmers trying to find cows in a free-stall barn. The augmented reality makes that easier and adds more easily available cow-specific information.

Ebbekink says the device is also engineered for data input. Farmers can use voice commands to add data to the system, such as to record when a cow has been treated.

Fetching cows that are milked by robots and haven’t been milked recently could also be made easier. Instead of wandering the herd looking for a handful of cows, looking out over the herd can show where the cows are located. A green arrow shows the farmer the way to the cow they need to find.

Ebbekink also says that wearing the goggles instead of using a hand-held device to read and record information frees up both hands for cow-related activities. That makes health processing more efficient, as it could mean no need for a record keeper.

Challenges with the system include that Microsoft is not yet ready to release a commercial version that will also stand up in a barn. Ebbekink expects that to arrive soon. Farmers will be able to buy the goggles from Microsoft.

They are a significant step up from the Google Glasses, now discontinued, as they were mostly a consumption product. The HoloLens also allows input by gestures and voice. Microsoft’s website currently has them priced at US$3,500.

Then there’s the challenge of getting farmers to try something that is a significant leap from current management practices.

Ebbekink says those who have tried it, haven’t taken long to get used to it. Older farmers — who first thought they were playing around with some sort of video game in the barn — have understood the use of the system quickly once they had a chance to try the goggles.

Nedap has videos that show the system working on its website.

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