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Meet the robot that’s making cattle herding safer 

October 18, 2018

Three quarters of a ton. That’s the size of the average bovine moving through Cargill’s beef plant in Schuyler, Nebraska. Multiply that by 5,000— approximately how many head of cattle the facility processes on a daily basis—and you begin to understand the scale of the potential safety risks that are inherent to working alongside these hefty mammals.

“These are very large animals that we deal with,” said Sammy Renteria, general manager at the plant. “And it’s something that causes concern because there is no way of knowing what the animal is going to do.”

Wearing lacrosse helmets and chest pads, the workers who herd the cattle look more like baseball umpires than plant employees. As the herd clears from each pen, the gates close and the workers move outside a series of rails; waving plastic bags tied to sticks and calling out commands to help push the cattle forward until the next gate can be closed.

“You’re herding live animals,” said Matt Croghan, yard supervisor. “They could turn on you, run you over, kick you, hurt you. So, anything we can do to be safer while we do this, we’re going to do.”

Lately, they’ve had some help from a new co-worker. He doesn’t have a name, but you might call him R2DMoo: he’s a remote-controlled robot.

A cattle-driving droid

Using a robot to herd cattle was the brainchild of Brad Churchill, plant operations manager.

“One of our vendors sent me a link to a video. And probably within 10 seconds of watching the video, I just immediately knew we could move cattle with that kind of robot.”

The robot on the video was designed to function as a security device. Churchill knew they’d have to make some modifications to successfully transform it into a cattle-driving droid: “We really had to beef it up.”

Beef it up they did. The body was upgraded from plastic to metal. The wheels were redesigned to move agilely along the trampled and sometimes muddy ground. A blower added the ability to press the cows forward without actually touching the animals. Wiry waving arms with plastic bags tied to the ends were added to whip back and forth, mimicking the sound and motion of the workers waving theirs.

And there was one other essential addition to the machine as iterative changes were made: a voice to help prompt the animals by saying, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Come on. Let’s move it!”

Churchill’s team made these tweaks to the technology as they began testing the robot at multiple Cargill beef plants, starting at the Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, facility.

Good for workers and worker safety

The workers took to the new technology quickly during the pilot, recalled Churchill.

“When we tested it out in Wyalusing I had planned to be there for three days. And after 45 minutes I could have gone home,” he said. “We already had employees operating the robot, moving the robot, using the robot to move cattle.”

The robot is operated via remote control by a worker standing on catwalks that overlook the pens. While people still need to be inside the pens, closing the gates off as the cattle travel toward the plant, the robot allows them to keep a greater distance from the animals.

“From a safety standpoint you don’t have to have an individual there pushing cattle forward,” said Renteria. “So, if the animal decides to turn, it’s not a person hurt. It’s just a machine that we can fix.”

While his team continues to fine-tune the technology, Churchill believes that this type of innovation could very well be replicated at other Cargill locations.

“I believe this could be used someday in all of our beef facilities and beyond,” he said. “Finding technology that helps keep our people safe and improves animal welfare is a big win.”