Ahead of the herd

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At a glance

  • Agritech innovator Halter develops ‘smart collars’ for cows to make dairy farming simpler and more sustainable.

  • Powered by a set of patented algorithms the business terms ‘cowgorithm’, the technology tracks the health and behaviour of every cow in a herd, and gives an early indication of when an animal is sick, in heat or calving.

  • The technology also allows farmers to remotely move their herds, and retain cows within ‘virtual fences’, leading to greater on-farm productivity.

  • Halter has accessed Callaghan Innovation support from its earliest days, including the agency’s R&D Experience Grants as a way to grow the business’  hungry talent pipeline.

As a dairy farmer lies in bed, rain steadily belting down outside, they reach for their cellphone. Quickly accessing an app, they remotely move their herd to higher ground – no raincoat and gumboots required. 

It may sound like the stuff of rural dreams, but agritech startup Halter is making it a reality – and revolutionising dairy farming in the process. 

Halter makes ‘smart collars’ for dairy cows that stay on the animal 24/7, measuring and understanding everything about them – from indicating when they’re sick before they show outward symptoms, to when they’re in heat or calving. 

Importantly, the information also allows the animals to be trained, and respond to cues from the collars enabling them to be remotely moved, and stay within the bounds of ‘virtual fences’. 

“If you’re a farmer it reduces the amount of time it takes to manage your herd so you can be more productive,” explains Halter founder and CEO Craig Piggott, “and you’re able to have happier, healthier cows because you’re proactively managing their health. There are a whole heap of benefits across the board.”

Smart and simple

Halter recently won Most Innovative Hi-Tech Hardware Product and Most Innovative Agritech Solution at the 2021 NZ Hi-Tech Awards, recognising the smarts behind the technology. 

Driving the solution is what the business company calls its ‘cowgorithm’ –  a set of patented algorithms it has developed that both translate human intentions into signals that an animal can understand, and animal behaviour into insights a human can understand. The signals themselves are sound and vibration cues, which the animals learn through a gentle training process that takes place over a few days when Halter is deployed on-farm.

The collars are solar-powered, GPS-enabled and built rugged – able to withstand being out in the elements 24/7, and rubbed against the likes of trees and troughs.

Then there’s the mission-critical software Halter has developed that allows farmers to drive the system, which Piggot says has been carefully developed with a simple interface that enables farmers to easily use it when they’re wearing gloves in the milking shed, for example, or are out in the driving rain.

“It’s the breadth of what we do at Halter, and integrating it all, that’s tricky. But that’s also what makes it harder for other people to try and do what we do,” says Piggott. “We’ve got a world-class team and culture that enables us to handle that breadth well, and really thrive as a business.”

Ambition in action

Piggott grew up on a dairy farm, a self-confessed “curious type of person who loved solving problems”. It was that background, coupled with his experience working in one of NZ’s most innovative firms as a mechanical engineer, which propelled him to start Halter. 

“I had the idea for Halter for a while, but it wasn’t until I was working at Rocket Lab that I thought ‘okay, this is possible. You can raise money, hire a world-class team and tackle these crazy problems.’ Seeing people in action pursuing a very ambitious dream was key for me.”

He worked on Halter part time, gaining a Callaghan Innovation Getting Started Grant in the business’ earliest days, before raising seed funding, which allowed him to go full time, as well as set up an office and start hiring in early 2017. 

In May, Halter also raised a further $32 million in investment, led by VC firm Blackbird Ventures, and also funded by some existing backers, including Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck.

The funding will primarily be used to hire more than 100 additional staff, as the company looks to deploy in other regions of NZ later this year, and ultimately globally, in major dairying markets such as South America and Europe.

Feeding the talent pipeline

Callaghan Innovation has helped support the development of Halter’s world-class R&D team.

“The whole way through our journey we’ve been supported by either Callaghan Innovation Project or Growth Grants [now replaced by the R&D Tax Incentive], which have been absolutely critical to our operation,” says Piggott. “As a startup, cash is very important and any grants we can attain go straight into our investment in R&D and headcount.”

For the past three years, Halter has also taken on around 10 interns each summer supported by R&D Experience Grants, with around a third of them eventually going on to work full-time in the business after they graduated. 

“Everyone loves the idea of working in a startup, but the reality is not everyone is cut out for it. A Callaghan Innovation-supported internship is a great way for us to take risks on people we otherwise wouldn’t, and for the interns to get this beautiful trial. Some of our best people have come from these internships, so they’re really critical.”

Halter’s hunger for talent continues to surge. Last year it began deploying the technology on farms in the Waikato. New farms are coming on board each week, reports Piggott, and the business can’t keep up with demand. 

“NZ is the best place for us to be right now,” says Piggott. “There are six million dairy cows here, so it’s a pretty epic place to start, but we have very, very large ambitions so going global is a matter of when, not if.”

 

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Updated: 14 June 2021