Merck Animal Health acquires virtual fencing company, completes minority investment in digital swine monitoring company

Merck Animal Health announced on Sept. 22 that it has acquired Vence from its founders and shareholders. Vence is an innovator in virtual fencing for rotational grazing and livestock management. Specific terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

Vence, a privately held company, provides enhanced technology for producers and ranchers to track, monitor and manage the movement of cattle through a high-tech platform of virtual fencing solutions.

It’s only the latest move for Merck Animal Health in what is becoming known as the animal-intelligence space in livestock management.

Managing cattle movements virtually

Dr. Justin Welsh, DVM, executive director of United States livestock technical services at Merck Animal Health, said the savings from the use of Vence technology could be significant given the cost of fences.

Using a computer or smartphone, customers have the capability to manage cattle movement and facilitate rotational grazing. Vence’s virtual fencing technology can reduce the need for fencing to subdivide pastures and allow producers and ranchers to manage their cattle and grass inventory, while reducing costs of labor and fencing materials. “We could see a lot less physical fencing” on ranchlands once virtual fencing technologies spread.

The Vence devices are powered by a replaceable battery and communicate with a LoRaWAN base station to receive instructions and updates to virtual fence lines set by the producer. GPS technology in the device is used to locate where the animals are relative to where the virtual fence line is.

The Vence business fits in well with Merck Animal Health’s business of developing, manufacturing and distributing identification and monitoring products for cattle and other livestock. The monitoring products, which can be in the form of a collar or ear tag, can detect potential illness or distress in cattle days before a human herdsman might spot them, allowing for immediate evaluation and, if necessary, treatment or separation from the herd. They can track rumination time and monitor changes that might signal some problem or stress factor.

Responsible use of antibiotics

One major benefit is a much more responsible antibiotic use. Merck Animal Health calls its patented and trademarked Whisper On Arrival technology a “first-of-its-kind precision tool that uses a multitude of factors to predict which cattle may be at higher risk of sickness. Farmers and veterinarians can use this information to determine a strategy for the treatment of bovine respiratory disease, the most prevalent disease in beef cattle.”

Consisting of a specialized sound collection device—Welsh described it as a paddle-like device with six separate microphones—and a predictive algorithm, Whisper On Arrival is applied to the animal for 8 to 15 seconds. Once the animal is in the cattle chute, the Whisper On Arrival technology is placed behind the elbow, on the right side of the chest, to ensure the most accurate reading. The device works in conjunction with a wireless-based application that is installed and run on a chute-side tablet computer. Individual animal body weight and rectal temperature are entered by the operator in the tablet and the thoracic sound data are captured by the device and transmitted to the tablet.

Whisper On Arrival collects a multitude of factors to predict which cattle may be at higher risk of sickness. Farmers and veterinarians can use this information to determine strategy for the treatment of BRD. Animals are classified by the device while in the chute as high risk or low risk. A decision can then be made by the veterinarian and producer on the appropriate antibiotic intervention. Welsh notes that during drought periods, occurrence of BRD can increase.

Welsh estimates that about 1.2 million of the country’s 9 million dairy cows are monitored by Merck Animal Health technology. “We’re building the devices as fast as we can.” Besides their other benefits, all of these devices, including Vence, help address a major challenge in the farming sector—labor shortages. Welsh believes that new practices and devices can help attract new kinds of young people to farming and agricultural work, who are comfortable with smart devices and data analysis. “Technology makes farms more efficient and effective,” and experienced workers often become the biggest proponents of sensors and new technology, he said.

Feedlot monitoring

Merck Animal Health’s SenseHub Feedlot is a system for cattle producers and feedlot operators to proactively track an animal’s biometrics and behavioral data through a non-invasive cattle ear tag equipped with sensors to monitor cattle temperature and movement. Merck Animal Health says this product is “state-of-the-art technology that is proven to provide data that can help to detect potentially sick cattle earlier, more efficiently and more accurately than traditional visual observation” and is “the first-of-its kind automated monitoring ear-tag product on the market for use in feedlots, as well as stocker and backgrounding production systems.”

Caregivers receive a daily “pull list” on their mobile device or computer that includes individual animals identified by the system for further assessment. In parallel, an LED light on the respective animals’ tags illuminates, so pen riders can spot them at a glance. After an animal is pulled, the caregiver evaluates the animal and provides appropriate treatment, if necessary. Detecting the potential for animal illness early can reduce the severity of disease and also reduce recovery time and potential for disease outbreaks.

Swine monitors

The Vence acquisition by Merck Animal Health isn’t the only recent move that the company has made in the animal monitoring space. Merck Animal Health recently announced that it had completed a minority investment in LeeO Precision Farming B.V. Merck Animal Health also will assume distribution of LeeO’s digital swine traceability solution in selected markets over the coming months. Merck Animal Health joined LeeO’s existing founders and shareholders, Prairie Systems, Inc., a strategic investment of United Animal Health, Inc., and MIQ B.V. Terms of the minority investment were not disclosed.

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LeeO, a privately held company located in Deventer, the Netherlands, provides a cloud-based, real-time digital swine traceability solution for farmers, producers and retailers to continuously track and analyze swine from birth throughout their lifecycle. The cloud-based technology platform provides users with the capability to record and track major life events in swine production, including genetics, insemination, birth registration, vaccination, age, weight, weaning, location and transportation. The platform is supported by an ecosystem of RFID-based hardware technology, such as ear tags, readers and weigh scales.

“Through this agreement, we are linking Merck Animal Health’s breadth and depth in animal health intelligence technology solutions with LeeO’s innovative digital swine traceability platform, which can help to change the way all phases of swine production interact and make decisions,” said Jeroen van de Ven, lead, animal health intelligence, Merck Animal Health. “Our animal health solutions, including our identification, traceability and monitoring capabilities, and investment in LeeO will help accelerate this technology development and advance the health and well-being of animals. We look forward to our partnership with LeeO and to continue to build the future of livestock traceability solutions, which can further create a connected and integrated ecosystem for the global livestock market.”

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].