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Even cowboy jobs may not be safe from robots

🕐 3 min read

An Australian professor is developing a robot to monitor the health of grazing livestock, a development that could bring big changes to a profession that’s relied largely on a low-tech approach for decades but is facing a labor shortage.

Salah Sukkarieh, a robotics professor at the University of Sydney, sees robots as necessary given how cattlemen are aging. The average age of a farmer in Australia is 52, according to the Australian Farm Institute.

Sukkarieh is building a four-wheeled robot that will run on solar and electric power. It will roam pastures alongside livestock and monitor the animals using cameras, thermal sensors and infrared. A computer system will analyze video footage to determine whether a cow is limping. Radio tags on the animals will measure temperature changes.

The quality of pasture will be tracked by monitoring the shape, color and texture of grass. That way, cattlemen will know whether they need to move their herd to another field for nutrition purposes. He plans to run trials later this year and is aiming for the final product to cost about as much as an ATV.

Machines have largely taken over planting, watering and harvesting crops such as corn and wheat, but the monitoring of cattle has gone through fewer changes.

For Texas cattleman Pete Bonds, a former president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, it’s increasingly difficult to find workers interested in careers watching livestock.

“It’s 110 degrees and you’re wearing a coat and bull-hide leggings and no air gets through,” Bonds said. “Getting a good enough man to be able to go through that brush and take it, there’s not any of them left.”

But Bonds doesn’t believe a robot is right for the job. Years of experience in the industry – and failed attempts to integrate technology – have convinced him that the best way to check cattle is with a man on a horse. Bonds, who bought his first cattle almost 50 years ago, still has each of his cowboys inspect 300 or 400 cattle daily and look for signs that an animal is getting sick, such as a steer that doesn’t stretch when standing up.

Other cattleman see more promise in ground robots. Michael Kelsey, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, said a roving robot that stays with livestock 24-7 could be extremely useful given rising concerns about cattle thieves. Cattle tend to be located in remote locations and their value has risen, making them appealing targets.

Kelsey said that the younger cattlemen in Oklahoma are beginning to experiment with another type of robot – drones – to remotely check on the location of cattle. Some use a drone’s thermal sensor to pinpoint the location of a missing cow that could be hidden in the brush.

Kelsey said the drones don’t stress the animals because cattle tend not to look up. He mentioned there would be concern that a land robot could startle cattle, but he thinks that if one is carefully introduced, the animals would acclimate to it.

Sukkarieh’s plan for a robot goes a step further than the use of drones that Kelsey describes. His robot would be automated and operate independently, which would reduce labor costs. A cattleman would receive an occasional notification that a specific animal needed human attention.

But for some in the business, an influx of machines could remove some of the fun of raising livestock.

“A lot of times it’s the therapeutic side of what they do, going to check on their cattle,” said Tyler Dupy, executive director of Kansas Cattlemen’s Association. “If you inject robots into the mix, then they wouldn’t have any interest in doing it anymore.”

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