By David Owen
Stephen Lawlor and David Hunt have witnessed a lot of bullying. Among the principal victims, in their experience, are young, first-time mothers, who are sometimes so intimidated that they’re unable to eat. Isolating their tormentors in a separate group isn’t a solution, Hunt told me: “They just knock the crap out of each other.”
The bullies and victims we were discussing are cows. Lawlor milks about three hundred Holsteins on a farm in County Meath, Ireland, an hour northwest of Dublin. The farm has been in his family for four generations; his calf barn, which is long and narrow and made of primeval-looking gray stone, was a horse stable in his grandfather’s time. He, Hunt, and I were standing in a more recent structure a few feet away, a hangar-size cowshed with a corrugated-metal roof. Directly in front of us, a cow that weighed maybe seventeen hundred pounds was using her anvil-shaped head to push a smaller cow away from a pile of bright-green grass, which had been cut that morning and heaped on the floor. For Lawlor, this was an act with economic consequences. A mature lactating Holstein will eat well over a hundred pounds of grass and other feed in a day, and produce about nine gallons of milk. Immature cows yield less to begin with, and their output falls further if they have trouble reaching their food.
It was partly in the hope of resolving this issue that Lawlor had engaged Hunt’s company, Cainthus, an artificial-intelligence startup based in Dublin. Hunt, the company’s president, describes its specialty as “facial recognition for cows”; it uses surveillance cameras, computer vision, and predictive imaging to track animals and analyze their behavior. Not long before my visit, a crew had installed cameras on slender aluminum beams several feet above Lawlor’s feed areas and water troughs. (The installers had learned from experience to mount the cameras higher than cows can reach with their tongues.) Price competition has put pressure on farmers in many countries to enlarge their herds and increase their output, even as their children are deciding they’d rather work for Google. Lawlor’s next big farm-equipment purchase, he said, is likely to be a robot.