Precision dairy farming

Published 21 November 14

Precision livestock farming – or PLF – is the latest buzzword in farming, with interest in cow sensor technologies for disease and heat detection proving particularly popular.

DairyCo’s Dr Jenny Gibbons reports on the highlights from two scientific conferences held back-to-back in Copenhagen in August.

The first conference, funded by the EU, brought together the scientific community and the dairy industry to exchange ideas on improving dairy husbandry through technology and engineering. The second, an academic animal science conference, saw 1,300 scientists from across 60 countries gather to discuss ‘Quality in Animal Production’, with a heavy focus on precision livestock research in Europe. 

Many of the emerging technologies evolving the way dairy cattle are managed, bred and fed, are variations of technologies used in manufacturing sectors, such as the motor industry. But it’s clear that from wherever these technologies are emerging, bringing research to practice will be critical. This means the dairy industry and farmers will have a key role to play in interacting with the scientific community to ensure that innovative research remains both practical and cost-effective for implementation on-farm.  

Rumination predicts cows at risk of transition disorders

Certain technologies have the potential to improve the management of cow health and wellbeing, boost efficiencies, reduce cost, increase product quality and give dairy farmers the tools to be more objective managers, said Professor Marcia Endres from the University of Minnesota.

Marcia and her team have been conducting research with sensors that record data such as cud chewing time, rumen temperature and resting time. In particular, they are interested in whether feeding, lying and rumination during the close-up to calving period has a relationship with transition cow health disorders early in lactation.

In a preliminary study, Marcia fitted rumination collars to 296 Holstein cows from 20 days before to 20 day after calving, and found a reduction in cudding time in cows diagnosed with metritis. More research is needed but this preliminary study indicated that cudding data may also be used for diagnosis of subclinical hypocalcaemia and retained placenta. The next stage is to test the rumination sensors with cows at pasture. Cows housed in groups at pasture are often difficult to evaluate so sensors can act as 24 hour surveillance, seven days a week.

“Data available via rumination monitoring technology enables farmers to track rumination levels which, if decreased, can indicate potential health and performance disruptions,” she said. “A cow’s cudding will often drop 24 hours or more before the appearance of physical symptoms such as depressed feed intake or reduction in milk yields. The use of rumination and activity sensors during the transition period can be a valuable tool to predict cows at risk for transition health disorders – and also to evaluate the successful transition of cows on your unit.”

Integrating robots and grass

The uptake of robotic milking machines is accelerating fast. A three-year, large-scale EU-funded project will be carrying out research on how best to integrate robot milkers with grazing, and to ascertain whether this integration is an economically, environmentally and socially-sustainable option for the future of dairy farming in grass-based systems. This project should yield interesting results, but grass management is likely to be key in its successful application on-farm.

For more information on this project, watch our webinar with Dr Valérie Brocard.

Calf cough monitor

Researchers are developing and testing a system to detect early signs of calf pneumonia from the sounds of calf coughing recorded in the calf house. Dr Bernadette Earley from Teagasc assessed calf health on a daily basis and recorded signs of illness, including calf pneumonia, scours and blood parameters responding to infection.

When an increase in coughing was detected, there was a corresponding increase in circulating white blood cells in calves, which indicated a potential infection. The calf cough technology can flag up pneumonia-related infections and has the potential for earlier identification and treatment of groups of calves. However, further refinement is likely to be necessary before its useful application on commercial farms.

Do Jersey calves have a more sensitive immune system?

According to researchers at Teagasc in Ireland, they do. PhD researcher Dayle Johnston is investigating the effect of gradual weaning on the immune response in various breeds of dairy calves. Weaning started when calves were consuming 1kg of concentrate per day for three consecutive days, with gradual weaning from 6 litres of milk replacer to none over a 14 day period. Blood samples were taken at several points pre-weaning, during weaning and after weaning, and were analysed for gene expression relating to immune function. The results indicate that Jersey calves may have a more sensitive and reactive immune system.

Cow sensor technology – how to make it pay on the farm

Dr Jeffrey Bewley from the University of Kentucky focused on the economics of precision dairy farming from the point of view of the farmer. He said there were numerous devices farmers could buy, but he strongly stressed that single observations without other measurements from a cow do not make the dairyman’s job easier. In fact, it can make it harder, cautioned Bewley.

“Lots of data but no way to link a piece of information from one device to another, does not help make better decisions,” he said.

A precision dairy farming enthusiast, Jeff challenged scientists and engineers to ensure their technologies were cost-effective for farmers. “This should include the provision of budget tools so the yearly economic benefit of investing in precision livestock technologies can be calculated. 

“Also, remember that many of the technologies get to market too early. The software is not always user-friendly and sometimes the technology has been developed without consideration of how it would integrate with other technologies or farmer working routines. Farmers should wait until researchers have gathered comprehensive information, including economics, and can demonstrate a cost-benefit analysis. Farmers should also consider a formal investment analysis to make sure the technology is right for their farm’s needs.”

An economic tool developed by Jeff and his team allows US farmers to compare up to three heat detection technologies for potential economic benefit to their farm (an equivalent tool from European researchers to weigh up the returns on precision technology is under development, so watch this space!).

But he also warned that care should be taken in transferring results from research environments directly to commercial farms. “More large scale commercial field trials and demonstrations are needed to ensure that the biological significance of the data is interpreted correctly.

“Additional efforts need to be directed toward implementing user-friendly software and computer interfaces that ensure the information gained from these technologies can be fully utilised on-farm.”

Jeff and his team have been involved in testing an overwhelming number of commercially-available technologies, both on the University’s research farm and on commercial farms. Some of the lessons they have learned are:

  1. Be cautious about buying early stage technologies
  2. Take the time to thoroughly learn how to use the technology and interpret the results
  3. Integrating the data from the various on-farm technologies takes an expert
  4. Having qualified customer service available is crucial

Give priority to buying devices that will have the largest impact on profit