Hi-tech firm Halter eyes fresh pastures
Smart collars are helping farmers through staff shortages, reports
Smart-cow firm Halter says it will expand overseas by year’s end. The startup, launched in 2016 by ex-rocket Lab engineer Craig Piggott — with backing from his exboss Peter Beck — makes wireless smart collars for cows.
Along with the usual GPS trackers and wireless internet connectivity, Halter’s collar can be used to guide a herd to a milking shed, or to a fresh paddock, using audio and vibration cues. The smartphone-managed collars can also track a cow’s health, if it’s in heat and, via a cloud dashboard, help with herd management. Halter says cows can acclimatise to its “virtual fence” solution in just three or four days.
The collars are free — or at least supplied, with Halter retaining ownership — while a farmer pays a monthly subscription to use the software that controls them. Halter says the price of the sub is “different for every farm” and depends on the size of the herd and features enabled.
When NZME last caught up with Piggott, in April last year, its sales were confined to Waikato, where it was making its first commercial sales to a pilot group of farms.
The startup had just raised $32 million in a Series B round led by Australasian venture capital firm Blackbird, with support from existing shareholders including Beck.
Piggott had the funds earmarked for expanding beyond Waikato, and boosting staff numbers from 60 to 115.
The founder says Halter is now available nationwide and now counts hundreds of farms on its books. “And we’re deploying to multiple farms daily.”
Staff numbers are now at 130, and set to be about 150 by year’s end.
“We’ll start our offshore expansion piece, this side of Christmas,” Piggott says.
He won’t say where at this point but says Halter has been doing research on the ground in overseas markets. Piggott can say his firm will likely be alone rather than look for a partner. “Our preference is to own the relationship end-to-end, like we do in NZ.”
Halter was always created with the aim of more efficient farming. You don’t need to dig any more fences, and you can see the status of your herd with a glance at your smartphone rather than trudging up a hill.
But these days, helping dairy farmers address a chronic labour shortage also looms large in its selling points.
One of its marquee customers is TCG Agriculture, which manages five dairy farms across Waikato and Bay of Plenty, ranging from 160 to 1000 cows.
TCG’S managing director Mitchell Coombe says reports and real-time feeds from Halter collars — which can be viewed on a smartphone — save the manager on each farm about 1-11⁄ hours a day, and saves him driving an hour to each farm to talk with staff and review paperwork to get a handle on where things are at.
His firm uses Halter’s system at one of its farms, and is looking to add the smart collars to the herds at its other four over the next 18 months.
In December last year, Coombe said between Covid immigration restrictions and few people looking for work, dairy farms were about 2200 people short.
Federated Farmers communications director Leigh Catley said the number was around double that.
“And it will be spiking above that now with calving,” Catley says.
“Most farmers haven’t been able to find backpackers or student holiday workers.”
There’s also a shortage of skilled staff as farming goes more high-tech, she adds.
Labour shortages are a global phenomenon.
But will Halter face competition in other markets?
Piggott says most while there are direct competitors, they’re all still at the R&D stage.
And while there are many smart collars on the market, the Halter founder says most are essentially “pedometers for cows”, only measuring activity rather than training and guiding a herd, and monitoring its health.
“But we do compete in a sense, because we both put collars on a cow — and you can’t put two collars on a cow.”
Probably the closed to head-tohead competition comes from another local outfit: Gallagher Group, which recently took full control of Melbourne startup Agersens, maker of the solar-powered eshepherd smart collar for tracking and controlling the movement of cattle.
Piggott is among the speakers at Blackbird’s “Sunrise” event for startups, taking place in Auckland this week.
What advice would he give anyone thinking about following in his footsteps, and chucking in their day job to follow their startup dreams?
“Any young entrepreneur who’s going to go through all the intense experiences you’ll have as a startup needs a good mentor,” he says.
“Every great athlete has a coach so wouldn’t every great CEO also have a coach.”
Beck both encouraged Piggott — who grew up on a dairy farm — to follow his passion, and invested in his startup.
“Peter’s still a good friend, a director and a mentor.” ■