It’s a big question, the sort most people would never dare attempt to solve, but Craig Piggott is braver than most.
“Fundamentally there are issues with dairy farming and a lot of room for us to improve. Relatively speaking, New Zealand dairy farming is really good, but benchmarking ourselves against other countries is no excuse.”
“What do consumers want? If consumers are demanding that we treat the environment better and farmers need more time and efficiency then it’s on companies to work out how to provide that.”
Drawing from both his Waikato dairy farm upbringing and his experience as a mechanical engineer working for Peter Beck at Rocket Lab, Piggott’s determined to bring farming into the future, to address the frustrations and inefficiencies of being a farmer, improve animal welfare and protect the environment.
He plans to do so with Halter, the company of which he is CEO and founder. Halter will produce collar-like, solar-powered devices worn by cows. It controls herding, monitors behaviour and health and reports data to a farmer’s phone or computer.
“These collars are constantly monitoring everything about the cow. These tell us when the cow is sleeping, when it’s eating, when it’s running, when it’s walking differently than it typically does - kind of like a Fitbit.”
“When it comes to guiding the cow or influencing where the cow goes, we use audio and vibration as the two main cues to give a cow feedback on where it can and can’t go. We take visual cues like a fence or a gate and we re-associate them to audio cues, so the cows learn through the collar. The vibrations help encourage those movements.”
It’s Pavlovian theory. Pavlov famously taught his dog to drool after hearing the ring of a bell. Those things shouldn’t be associated, but they are because the dog’s been conditioned to respond to a cue. Cows are taught to associate sounds with particular movements.
“By being able to move cows, to allocate pasture without having to go down and put up a temporary fence or get up and move the cows when it’s rainy in the morning, you reduce a massive labour element from the farmer”
Halter also offers an element of precision greater than previously thought possible, an attractive option for farmers having to deal with the inconsistent patterns of grass growth and paddock size.
“Being 10% over one day and 10% under the next is considered acceptable, but if you have a system where you can capture that 10% from your phone or your computer it becomes really easy. And if your average dairy farm is earning one million dollars in revenue, 10% is $100,000.”
“From a lifestyle point of view you can wake up later and spend more time with your kids, from a financial point of view it makes you more milk and you can save on labour, from a sustainability point of view you can keep cows out of waterways. You can see very quickly how it starts to become a no brainer.”
Halter has been in field for 18 months, and already Piggott and the team has seen the positive results of their tests.
“It’s almost frustrating watching it happen here and knowing how close we are to getting this out on a whole lot of farms around the Waikato, New Zealand and all round the world. I’m really just making sure when it’s time to start moving to those other places that we can do that.”
The idea has proven popular, both here and overseas. Halter recently raised US$8 million in capital from Stephen Tindall and Piggott’s former boss Peter Beck, alongside Silicon Valley giants like of Data Collective and Founders Fund.
“We had our sights set early on being a globally relevant company. We didn’t want to get stuck just being on 20 farms in the Waikato, having someone see a great idea and introduce it at scale.”
Piggott says this sort of big picture thinking is something Kiwis can struggle with. Whether the result of our humble nature or tall poppy syndrome, we don’t often aim beyond our own shores.
“When you start thinking like that it completely changes the way that you operate. It’s scary to sit there and think we’ll have a collar on every cow in the world. The other option is we’ll have a collar on maybe a quarter of the cows in the Waikato. That seems quite achievable, but because that’s the comfortable thing to do everyone defaults to it.”
“Being happy with being uncomfortable, being happy with pushing assumptions and not being limited by what was previously thought possible. It's something we believe in at Halter and we wouldn't have it any other way. “