How America’s Largest Private Company Is Using AI for Shrimp and Cattle Farming

September 25, 2018, 6:52 PM UTC

Cargill, America’s largest privately held company, is marrying hi-tech artificial intelligence with humble endeavors such as shrimp farming and cattle ranching.

The agriculture giant, which brought in $115 billion of revenue in its most recent fiscal year, seeks to boost the productivity of its customers by investing in and deploying the likes of this new gadgetry. The company is applying similar machine learning smarts used by high-frequency trading bots, speech-processing virtual assistants, and self-driving cars to help farmers scan cows’ faces and listen to the feasting of shellfish—all to reduce waste.

Justin Kershaw, Cargill’s chief information officer and corporate vice president, detailed these two examples while speaking Tuesday in Chicago at Brainstorm Reinvent, Fortune’s conference on industrial transformation. First, he explained how the company’s tech is helping to improve resource management in aquaculture.

“Shrimp make a sound when they eat,” Kershaw said. By monitoring this noise with an Internet-connected acoustic device, farmers can monitor the shrimp’s feeding activity. This, in turn, helps the farmers determine when they’re providing too much or too little chum.

Kershaw called Cargill’s approach a “good example of disruption inside our own company.”

Since Cargill also sells shrimp feed to shrimp farmers, the eavesdropping product potentially eats into the feed unit’s sales. “The feed guys who invoice on pounds of feed aren’t so excited,” he said.

Kershaw also explained how tracking the behaviors of dairy cows—their movements, diets, and even facial expressions—can lead to better milk output. These data inform pregnancy rotation schedules, thus helping farmers to determine the optimal time for insemination, he said.

While livestock and software might seem like an odd mix, the combination is boosting yields for farmers who are “not afraid” to experiment with new tools, Kershaw said.

“When you’re bringing [farmers] technology, the last thing they want is one more thing that’s going to break on their farm,” he added. “They want someone on their side who understands that and brings them something that can actually help them to be more productive; that’s what we’re doing.”