Facial-recognition technology isn't just for catching criminals. It's coming to cows. And, soon, pigs and even fish.

Cargill Inc. announced Wednesday it is partnering with an Irish startup whose facial-recognition software and analytics can help dairy farmers lower their costs, increase production and take better care of their animals.

Terms of the deal, in which Cargill will take a minority stake in Dublin-based Cainthus, weren't disclosed. But Cargill officials described the move as an important and significant investment in the company's growing strategy to expand the use of digitization and technology in food production.

Cows, like humans, have unique facial features and marks that make it possible to track their movement and behavior. Cainthus' proprietary system incorporates barn cameras, sensors and sophisticated imaging analysis. If a certain animal isn't moving around enough or has changed its typical eating or drinking patterns — warning signs of an illness that could impact milk production, reproduction or overall health — the system sends an alert to the farmer's computer or mobile phone.

"When you install our technology, you go from cows reacting to what you're doing, to you reacting to the needs of your animals," said David Hunt, president and co-founder of Cainthus.

The system was first used in 2015 at a commercial dairy farm in Ottawa, Canada. It has since been installed at farms in New York and California as well as farming operations in Italy, Spain and, soon, China.

While the focus has been on dairy cattle, Cargill is working with Cainthus on a trial using pigs and expects to have a commercially viable system by the end of the calendar year. The companies expect to expand into poultry and aquaculture in the future.

Hunt, a former corporate banker, said he and his two partners spent more than three years and "several million dollars" getting the company ready for the global stage. He said he turned down offers from other "famous venture capital groups" that lacked experience in agriculture before Cargill approached him about forming a partnership.

The joint venture with Cainthus aligns perfectly with the mission of Cargill's digital insights business, which launched in June 2017, said SriRaj Kantamneni, who is managing director of the new division.

Over the past year Cargill has announced several initiatives in livestock, poultry and aquaculture aimed at helping its customers improve land use and animal management as well as increase efficiencies and overall productivity.

Cargill's deep well of capital and global connections will help to quickly expand the reach of the Cainthus platform. The companies aim to make the data and outcomes available to their farmer-producer customers as well as competitors, with the idea that good practices deserve to be shared and implemented.

"We don't want to limit the technology in any way," Kantamneni said. "The goal of technologies like this is really to help bring productivity, efficiency and profitability to market, and to do that in the most impactful way."

Facial recognition provides more detail and complexity than wearable digital monitors, which provide some of the same feedback to farmers. It has a particular advantage for farmers with herds of 800 cows or more, Hunt said.

The cost of the system based largely on barn space and number of animals. Cainthus' engineers do a site visit, take a few days to install cameras. While it takes just a few seconds to capture the features of an individual animal, it takes several weeks for the system to record the individual patterns and movements of a specific cow to establish a benchmark. The hardware costs $38 to $50 per animal. The data and analytics costs an additional $50 per animal per year.

The hope is that more customers will mean more data sets that could help farmers around the world make better decisions, said Scott Ainslie, vice president and group director of Cargill Animal Nutrition.

Kantamneni believes the partnership will do that — and also up the hipster factor of the industry. "There's a tendency to think that ag is not cool," Kantamneni said. "I think this is extremely cool. It's happening right in our backyard."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335