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Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.Most Harvest Public Media stories begin with radio- regular reports are aired on member stations in the Midwest. But Harvest also explores issues through online analyses, television documentaries and features, podcasts, photography, video, blogs and social networking. They are committed to the highest journalistic standards. Click here to read their ethics standards.Harvest Public Media was launched in 2010 with the support of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Today, the collaboration is supported by CPB, the partner stations, and contributions from underwriters and individuals.Tri States Public Radio is an associate partner of Harvest Public Media. You can play an important role in helping Harvest Public Media and Tri States Public Radio improve our coverage of food, field and fuel issues by joining the Harvest Network. Learn more here.

Facial Recognition Is Not Just For Your Phone. It Could Be Used To Prevent Livestock Disease.

When it comes to identifying cows, Jake Calvert, a rancher from Norman, OK, goes by the KISS Principle: keep it simple, stupid. 

“Green is for grade cattle. Pink is for our purebred cows, and that's because all of them exhibit just a little bit more femininity than our grade cattle. Yellow is the bull,” Calvert says.

Calvert could name a few of his cows without ear tags, like Angie, a retired show heifer. Otherwise, it would be a little tricky. Without brands, ear tattoos or tags, it’s hard to distinguish cows apart. A team of researchers are making facial recognition technology for cows, which might lead a faster way of tracing in the event of a disease outbreak. 

K.C. Olson, a professor of range livestock nutrition at Kansas State University, worked with a team to develop artificial intelligence for an app called Cattletracs

“The artificial intelligence looked at the pictures for millions of iterations and effectively taught itself, which features of the bovine head were most characteristic of the species,” Olson says. 

Cows at JSJ Cattle & Quarter Horses are tagged with numbered and colored ear tags to differentiate types of cows.
Credit Seth Bodine / Harvest Public Media
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Cows at JSJ Cattle & Quarter Horses are tagged with numbered and colored ear tags to differentiate types of cows.

When the team quizzed the AI on whether it had seen a cow before, it was 94% accurate. The app, which is still under development, would allow ranchers to snap a cow’s picture and send it, along with GPS coordinates and the date, to a database. 

Joe Hoagland, the founder of Black Hereford Holdings Inc., the company developing the app, says it could help tracking down an animal in the event of a disease outbreak. 

“We could trace it and quarantine it and manage it much like we're dealing today with the coronavirus,” Hoagland says. “You know, if you can get on top of it early, you can control it. This would enable that type of thing to happen.”

Rosslyn Biggs, a beef extension specialist at Oklahoma State University, says there’s a fairly large portion of the beef cattle industry that isn’t required to have official identification. She says this would make tracing and controlling a potential disease outbreak challenging. She says in the event of an outbreak, time is of the essence. 

Jake Calvert, a rancher from Norman, OK, stands on his land. Calvert uses numbered colored ear tags to keep track of his cattle.
Credit Seth Bodine / Harvest Public Media
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Jake Calvert, a rancher from Norman, OK, stands on his land. Calvert uses numbered colored ear tags to keep track of his cattle.

“We need to be able to limit it, because undoubtedly, we will have significant interruptions in our supply chain here in the United States. Our export markets will undoubtedly cut us off, depending on the disease,” Biggs says. 

Michael Kelsey, the executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, says he’s open to new technologies as long as they’re not too cumbersome.

“That would be the key is how easy they are to use in an industry that we can keep those speed of commerce flowing,” Kelsey says. 

Calvert, who runs a smaller ranch, says he is skeptical of facial recognition to use as a tracing system. But he says other ranchers may jump on board because it’s cheaper than radio frequency ear tags. 

“Because a $9, even a $20 a year subscription to a phone app is going to be far cheaper than tagging 500 calves with RFID tags,” Calvert says. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it’s aware of research into cattle facial recognition and will continue to evaluate it. Right now, there’s no plan to officially use the technology to trace cattle.

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