The Future of Self-driving Cows
You may be thinking that is one hell of a typo. But it isn’t.
So let’s talk cows.
Cows are kind of like dogs. Domesticated. Different personalities. Fat cows. Skinny cows. You get the drift. The main point is that we took these animals and we have integrated them into our society. We have domesticated them.
For the most part, cows where domesticated because they are tasty piles of high quality protein that we like to eat. They take grass, corn and other plants that not even our most devout vegetarians can eat and convert it to wonderful protein rich meats and milk via a symbiotic relationship with millions of hungry little bacteria in their stomachs. It’s a pretty good deal. It was super important in the early days of mankind that we had access to protein. It has even been said that access to meat and milk helped Genghis Khan conquer Asia citing his mens improved health from quality protein.
But Ol’ Genghis has been dead for a while.
The world has changed.
Cattle are more than just domesticated. They are one part of a huge supply chain that aims to provide cheap, sustainable, high quality and safe protein to every single person on the planet that wishes to consume it.
We are really good at it at this point. We mostly know how cows work. We can maximize their production and give them a really good life. Even if thats not how most of the media likes to portray the life of cows on modern dairy farms. You know how the media is though. Watching cows chewing their cud, laying around, being lazy AF isn’t exactly outrage porn. So thats not the story you hear.
Confinement agriculture is under assault. People are unsure that they can trust big farms. This is totally fair. How much do you trust your big government? Your big bank?
We live in a time where it is hard to trust big things.
Farmers get cast under the same big lens since almost none of the population in modern society have to be part of creating their food.
But this is about as much as we are going to talk about societies relationship with todays farming. It’s good that not everyone has to be a farmer.
Lets talk about tomorrow.
It might be very soon that protein can be produced en masse synthetically and more economically in factories. No cow included. Synthetic meat and milk are already being made. A bit of optimization, a dash of marketing and BOOM. The first real competitor to animal based meats ever. Not since the first cave man barbecue has there been a better competitor for meat than… meat.
Animal agriculture may have to make some big changes to prevent cows just becoming zoo animals and consumed as niche products.
But there is hope for cows.
Cows could save the planet. 😱
Well that is perhaps embellishing a little bit. But not too much.
Before we domesticated cattle, cattle where just part of the existing natural ecosystem. An emergent phenomenon of evolution created over millions of years to help create balance on planet earth.
Herds of cows have regenerative properties. Cows grouped together, roaming the land, aerate and fertilize the soil. This makes the grass grow bigger and stronger for the next time they are in the area to eat. It’s literally the circle of life. Managing land in this way is one of the tools we can use to make agriculture more sustainable. It helps prevent soil erosion, nitrogen runoff and takes carbon dioxide from the air and stores it safely in the soil.
So whats the beef?
Why aren’t we raising a lot more cattle on pastures?
There are many barriers. One is a misalignment of economic incentives for sustainable practices. They don’t pay very well. Some relate to the super long tail that agriculture practices have. The low margin high capital intensity nature of the business makes it hard for the industry to make fast change.
Another is that people just hate building fences and managing pastures! I can tell you from personal experience that even if people like the idea of cattle roaming the pasture, they don’t love when the fence fails and the cows come to visit in the middle of the night and aerate their lawn. #FenceFail
So this is where the self driving cows come in. (Finally right!?)
We might be done building fences FOREVER! 🎉
There is a famous quote by Peter Thiel about innovation. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” The funny thing is. Did any of us think we wanted ‘Virtual Fencing’?
To be honest, the first time I heard about it I thought it was about the stupidest idea ever. It was this company called Nofence from Norway using GPS collars to use goats to graze under powerlines. It sounded totally niche and utterly scandinavian.
Recently though, a new company seems to have marketing that appealed more to my american agricultural sensibilities or something. The people over at Vence label themselves as “autonomous animal control”.
SELF DRIVING COWS GUYS.
So instead of building fences all over the countryside and having to maintain all that fence we can give cows smart collars. AI can guide the cows to make the pastures sustainable and and efficient and give pasture grazing an economic boost like intensive management and fence never could before. While the whims of the algorithms guide the cows to lush pastures using gentle nudges and shocks in the worse case we can also be assured that cows don’t end up holding up traffic or ruining our highly manicured private property.
We are always reinventing what animal agriculture looks like to reflect our societies current values and market pressures from other innovation.
It is super cool to think that one version of that new future could be to reintroduce a more dynamic grazing system that farm operators might actually want to get behind. And that instagram obsessed city slickers might even think is beautiful.
We could completely mimic historical grazing systems and find a way to have them not clash with cities and peoples lives using virtual fencing. We can even improve how public land is managed using cattle. Food can be grown and the side effect is public lands need less human care. This could even help mitigate the strength of forest fires caused by unmanaged acres.
The biggest question might be to determine what we deem our moral responsibilities in regards to level of care for animals managed fully autonomously. Do we let them die if they are ill? Do we provide them with manufactured shelter when weather is bad?
We continue to have to make and remake these decisions.
What do you think?
I’m pretty pumped for the future. 🎉