Automating mobility and condition scoring using a 3D camera is proving a success for the furthest easterly dairy unit in the UK, maintaining improving herd mobility, health and welfare, and saving costs.
TEXT PHIL EADES
With the furthest fields a kilometre away from cow buildings at the Burroughs’ family’s Suffolk-based dairy unit, they clearly need cows that are good on their feet. But as cow numbers increased at Dairy Farm, near Beccles, ed an increase in the number of lame cows.
Jamie Burroughs runs the 450-cow pedigree British Friesthey notician herd with help from a team of five, including his father David. It’s the main enterprise on this all-forage farm, family also runs a free-range egg-laying flock, as well as eight self-catering holiday lets. The herd calves in a 16-week block starting in late August, to make the best use of grass, according to Jamie. “We rotationally graze from early March until October, housing cows as they calve down. A TMR, based on grass and maize silage is fed during the winter, and concentrates are fed to yield through the 54-point rotary parlour, where cows are milked twice a day.”
The herd is currently averaging 7,500 litres of milk, at 4.4% butterfat and 3.4% protein, with milk sold to Arla. The farm rears its own replacements and the herd will increase to 480 cows this autumn. To keep lameness to a minimum and optimise hoof health, the Burroughs were relying on manually spotting problem cows in the parlour, segregating them and treating them accordingly. “We use a trained foot trimmer, and all cows are routinely trimmed at drying off,” adds Mr Burroughs.
And, to meet the milk-contract requirements, the whole herd has to be mobility scored four times a year. “This was carried out by the vet as part of a herd-health contract, but this inevitably caused some disruption at milking and slowed down cow flow.” He also found that while mobility scoring can be a valuable management tool, quarterly mobility scoring does not really help when it comes to keeping on top of lameness. “So we’ve moved to a system of automated daily assessment, coupled with early notification of any issues, which means we can treat problems quickly, and before they become more serious and costly.”
Based on an initial concept developed by Kingshay Farming and Conservation, in consultation with the Bristol Robotics Lab at the University of the West of England, HerdVision is a static 3D-camera system that is now the most widely proven of its kind on units in the UK and Europe.
“By recording every cow, every time they walk under the camera, the system gives us the timely data we need to maximise hoof health and mobility. And the system also body condition scores the cows on a daily basis, which we were doing too infrequently,” says Mr Burroughs. “The initial work showed that the camera technology could identify changes in mobility and condition score,” says HerdVision’s Stuart Adams. “We have now moved the technology to a point where it can work effectively on-farm and provide
valuable information.” He adds that on-farm data comparing the camera against RoMs (Register of Mobility Scorers) accredited scores show a high degree of correlation, demonstrating the accuracy of the camera technology. The system’s 3D camera is mounted above the cattle race at the parlour exit, allowing it to take images of individual animals every time they pass under it. The camera, which is the size of a small shoe box, is robust and waterproof, and it can be installed on any race in a couple of hours. Being sited high up means it is safe from physical damage and soiling.
Accurate cow identification is vital if the system is to work effectively, and it identifies animals using their EID tag without interfering other EID readers on the unit. This avoids conflicts and ensures 100% accurate cow identification.
A 3D video of the cow is produced with the camera recording 30 frames per second. Mr Adams explains that each pixel on the camera is a measurement point and allows a detailed image to be created. The camera identifies and measures cows’ key anatomical features. The images are interpreted on the camera and shared with a cloud-based system. Alerts are then sent to an app allowing prompt action. More detailed analysis by a range of parameters, including days in milk and yield, can be carried out on the website, where data can also be downloaded or shared with the herd vet, adviser or milk buyer.
“For mobility scoring, producers will be alerted to any cow that is showing as lame at the most recent pass under the camera. For body condition score, it is changes that are important.
So we assess every cow against a seven-day rolling average. This means we are highlighting meaningful changes as cattle lose or gain body condition,” Mr Adams continues.
Mr Burroughs says the increased frequency of scoring the cows is helping to improve herd management. “Early identification means we have fewer lame cows because we are seeing problems sooner. As soon as we get an alert, we can segregate a cow and check her feet, and treat her before the problem becomes more severe. We are managing foot health proactively rather than reactively.
“The condition score information is also proving a great help. We are looking to calve cows at condition score 3, and the regular data gives us an overall picture of the herd. “It allows us to see how condition is changing and we can manage supplementary feeding in late lactation to hit the target.
“We have saved treatment costs and improved accuracy of feeding, and collecting the data is carried out in a way that does not affect cow behaviour or extend milking times.”