In recent years, avian influenza (or “bird flu”) has been on a rampage, wiping out wild and domestic birds, disrupting the environment, and causing a shortage of eggs and poultry meat. The Davis-based startup AgriNerds aims to help farmers to identify potential risks and protect poultry against the threat of diseased ducks.
Co-founded by a group of UC Davis affiliated engineers and veterinarians, AgriNerds developed the WaterFowl Alert Network, or WFAN, which uses a combination of weather radar, satellite imagery and ground-based sensors to make detailed daily predictive maps of waterfowl.
“If you’re a commercial poultry producer, for example, over the last two to three years, we’ve lost over 70 million poultry with billions of dollars in damage,” says CEO Maurice Pitesky, an associate professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “The effects to consumers in the U.S. and beyond are huge. Hence we need new solutions that help our farmers protect their poultry.”
Jeffrey Buler, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, is the primary developer of the network, touted as “the world’s first SaaS (software as a service) based predictive tool for waterfowl mapping and abundance.” The tool costs a monthly fee of $50 per farm. Out of 44,000 chicken farms in the U.S., about 1,000 farms have used the tool so far, Pitesky says.
“Ever since radar was discovered before World War II, people knew you could use it to identify the location of birds like waterfowl, ducks and geese,” he says. “It wasn’t until the last decade where people like myself and Jeffrey Buler started thinking about how to use the technology in more of an applied setting instead of an academic exercise.”
In November, AgriNerds won Sacramento State University’s entrepreneurship competition. But there are still many hurdles to overcome. Radar access varies across countries. Also, the screening of radar is tedious, although the team has developed “novel machine learning-based algorithms to help speed the process along,” Pitesky says.
Dr. Carrie Cremers, a poultry veterinarian, had been working with AgriNerds for a different project and they presented their waterfowl tracking network. Previously, Cremers could only track waterfowl activity through public websites that showed bird movement. But with AgriNerds’ software, she can now see where the birds are roosting and migrating.
“You give them the farm location, and they can tell you the activity close to your farms,” she says. “It’s really important because we know waterfowl and waterbirds are carrying the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Virus, and knowing where they are in relation to your farm helps you be more aware.”
This is, admittedly, the first step. Now that farmers can track waterfowl, there are other questions that need to be addressed. How does waterfowl tracker data correlate to a farmer’s risk level? What next steps can be taken to prevent diseased waterfowl from infiltrating these farms based on this data?
That said, the program is still new. Right now, customized tracking models can be created by request on demand. But ultimately, Pitesky says, customers will be able to go onto the site, select the geographic area they want and choose what time in the past, present or future they wish to view.
“The technology and the application of it and belief in it is the easier part, but getting people to use it, especially in agriculture, is a hard thing to do,” he says. “Ultimately, investment will help with rapid expansion and customer acquisition in multiple fields.”
To that end, AgriNerds is collaborating with various sectors like recreation (such as waterfowl hunters) and environmental management (like protecting waterfowl habitats). Other potential partnerships include renewable energy (for example, assessing solar and wind power sites) and golf course management. The technology is designed to work globally, offering strong potential for international expansion.
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