Cow farmers get high-tech tracking app

BovControl cow tracking app
Farmers use BovControl's mobile app to track information about their cattle.

In Brazil, there are more cows than humans. The country is the world's largest exporter of beef in the world.

A new startup wants to connect the dots between each of those 200 million cattle, the ranchers who own them, global companies that buy the beef, and consumers who want to know where their filet mignon came from.

Using the BovControl app, farm workers enter information on heads of cattle. Cows' profiles include information like birth date and time, weight, and what vaccinations they've had. The mobile app works with existing animal identification methods, including tattoos, implanted chips, and ear tags. And since Internet coverage is spotty in many rural areas, it also works offline and syncs up when the phone has a connection. (It's only available on Android right now; an iOS version is due out in early 2015.)

Farm owners can access the data on a computer dashboard and make decisions based on that information.

For example, if a dairy farmer knows which animals are pregnant, he can group those cows together. After inputting their due dates, there will be a text alert when the cows are going to give birth, ensuring they're in the right place for delivery. With careful weight tracking, a beef rancher can also pinpoint the best time to sell off cattle.

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There are currently more than 3,000 farms -- and hundreds of thousands of cows -- using the app around the world, including in the U.S., South Africa, India and Colombia.

Next, the Brazilian startup wants to take that wealth of information and combine it with even more data about the ranches themselves. That will inform another tool for companies who buy the beef and dairy.

With more information like what the animals eat, their exact breed and health history, and conditions on the farm itself, the software could help companies like McDonald's (MCD) and Wal-Mart (WMT) track their products' origins. Those companies can then reassure customers that the conditions on the farms were ethically and environmentally sound.

"Some retailers are asking for grass-fed beef, some others are going for organic ... Lots of industries are asking for the farmers to produce specific things for them, but they don't have a platform that can communicate that," said Danilo Leao, founder of BovControl, who was in San Francisco for the Start-Up Brasil demo day.

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With better, more extensive data, a grocery chain could ensure it only bought beef from farms that didn't participate in deforestation or unfair labor practices. It could obtain a more consistent taste and texture by identifying the farmers that produce that meat, or making specific requests.

"We can offer them a platform where they can give incentives to the farmers to have the best practices that they want followed," said Leao.

Leao says his company is in advanced talks with the European Union and a certification organization in Latin America that tracks social and environmental information about livestock. BovControl plans to launch a program with McDonald's soon to help the fast food company better track its meat.

The two-year-old São Paulo-based company has eight employees, a new outpost in Palo Alto, and a recent investment from Silicon Valley's Redpoint e.Ventures.

The software for restaurants and other beef-buyers isn't expected to come out until later next year. Until then, BovControl is focusing on getting new farms around the world to start tracking their cows.

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