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Set it and forget it: A livestock tracking system that works for ranchers

Team Klamath Agricultural Solutions represents Klamath Community College in the InventOR Finals.

Niles Walter's family owns a ranch in the Klamath Basin that has seen its share of possibly preventable livestock deaths. So when Niles teamed up with Matt Volpe for the InventOR Collegiate Challenge, they had a real problem to solve.

The pair came up with a solar-powered system ranchers can place at water troughs that will seamlessly track the location of livestock, sending a text message to the rancher if an animal goes missing.

Reach the interview and catch up with Klamath Agricultural Solutions to learn more about how their system uses old technology in a new way, why most high-tech livestock tracking systems don't work, and how a love of video games and vintage technology brought the team members together.

What is your invention?

Our invention is a simple solar-powered device that you place at a water trough where livestock always come to drink. It wirelessly reads a radio frequency ID (RFID) tag placed in the animal’s ear, and records when each animal shows up at the trough.

All livestock need to drink water at least once a day, if not more; If an animal doesn’t “check in” at a trough within that amount of time, our device will send an alert via text message to the rancher that the animal has gone missing and needs to be checked on.

Where did you get the inspiration for your invention idea?

Niles’ family has run a ranch in the Klamath Basin for the past 20 years, and he’s seen his share of livestock fatalities. Out in the thousands of acres of high-desert scrub brush, it can be nearly impossible to get an accurate count of all the cows in a herd by just riding around on a horse or ATV. Checking a herd manually like this is also extremely time and labor intensive. A set-and-forget system like this takes over that job, counting the cattle for you.

As you prepare to pitch your invention to judges, what are you most excited about sharing?

We’re most excited to show how our relatively simple system can use already well-developed components in a totally new way. It’s innovation, not invention; something that’s often overlooked when trying to create a unique new product.

Who are your invention heroes?

Alexander Graham Bell, and his natural curiosity of the world driving him to understand how it worked through experiments and inventions.

Tell us about your team. How did you connect with one another and how do you work together?

We’ve known each other since middle school and have participated in a FIRST Robotics team together all throughout high-school. Our love of video games and old technology of any kind brought us together, and our like-minded understand of technical details has helped us work together on many projects both inside and outside of school. We initially started work on this project together through KCC’s new Badger Venture pitch competition, which allows students from OIT to participate as well.

Niles is currently studying Advanced Manufacturing at Klamath Community college, and is the go-to for anything mechanical, electrical or manufacturing related.

Matt is studying Software Engineering, specializing in Embedded Systems, at Oregon Institute of Technology. He’s our programming lead, as well as our go-to business man thanks to his previous experience in the Future Business Leaders of America high-school program.

What is the most important thing you want the judges to understand about your invention — what will set you apart from the competition? 

While there are similar systems on the market, our system focuses on simplicity. Most other systems rely on active data collection, such as GPS location, skin temperature, and motion analysis. These systems also use a battery powered device on the animal itself, needing regular service as frequently as every 4-6 weeks — not practical at all if you have 250 animals scattered across 10,000 acres. Our system needs no batteries, as the RFID ear tags are passive, and only transmit an ID number when they receive power from a radio signal transmitted by the base station. These tags typically last the life of the animal.

We operate on the principle of not getting in the rancher’s way. They’ve been running livestock for decades, they already know how to manage their herds. They don’t need this flood of data to optimize their herd’s production by 3 percent. They just need to know when there’s a problem so they can fix it, instead of finding the problem after it’s too late. This should be much easier to market to both small and large ranches alike, as it’s not too intrusive.

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