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Tech needs to tick all the boxes (Jan 23)

There’s a wealth of innovative technology available to support and help improve herd management, health and welfare, but how should producers ensure they invest wisely?


There is an explosion of new technologies available in the dairy sector that are all competing for a share of limited capital investment budgets, so how do producers choose which one is the most appropriate for their system? HerdVision’s Stuart Adams says there are three key considerations when planning an investment.

“The first is to consider whether the technology addresses a real problem on the farm or can significantly improve an aspect of management,” he says. “For example, will the technology save time, reduce waste or improve management data, allowing producers to make more timely and effective decisions?

“Sourcing labour remains a significant challenge across the industry, so technologies that save labour, or improve the effectiveness of labour use by automating a task, could be a benefit on many units,” he adds

“Similarly, many technologies will provide producers with more information. But this is only of value if it is provided at the correct time and in a form that is easy to use and can be assimilated with other data systems as required. If the technology does not provide the data needed in a form that can be rapidly used to improve decisions, then it is of less value. And also ask, can the data be easily shared with necessary third parties, such as other team members or the vet?”

Mr Adams says the second factor is to determine whether the technology will be appropriate to the system. No two units are the same, and some technologies are better suited to some systems than others. Will the technology deliver the benefits easily and quickly, and will it be reliable, or will producers be constantly fighting the technology to see the improvements? Does the technology just have one application or can it deliver a number of benefits?”

Finally, and most importantly, he urges producers to look at the cost benefit of technologies “If it won’t deliver a significant and independently-verified ROI then the investment will be questionable.”

One technology attracting a lot of interest is the use of combination 2D/3D camera systems to automate recording of health and welfare traits. The principle is that the camera identifies and measures key anatomical features, with each pixel an individual measurement point allowing a detailed image to be created. These measures are then interpreted, often using specialist algorithms, with the outcomes shared via cloud-based systems to the user’s app and web portal.

Data quality

“By taking more measurements, with greater accuracy and higher frequency, the quantity of data per cow is far greater than could be achieved by human assessment. The systems sift out the important data and send these to an app for timely use, while more in-depth analysis can be carried out on a website, as required.”

With the HerdVision system, the most widely used in the UK, the camera is mounted above the cattle race, taking images of individual animals every time they pass under it, allowing regular, consistent and unobtrusive assessment. The camera itself is the size of a small shoe box and is robust and waterproof.

Robust tech: camera simultaneously scores cows for mobility and body condition

“Because all processing is carried out on the camera, it will function even if there are connectivity issues, while the in-built uninterruptable power supply means it will continue to work for three hours if there are power outages,” explains Mr Adams.

The camera system also ‘better survives’ the harsh farm environment compared to wearable tech, such as collars, ear tags and leg tags, where battery life, the high cost of systems and a monitoring device for each animal can be an issue. The data transfer can be via Wi-Fi, Ethernet or 4/5G making it suitable for all farms.

Mr Adams adds that the system was initially developed to automate and increase the frequency of mobility scoring, with an alert provided for any cow showing as lame. The system saves labour, improves consistency of reporting, and ensures more timely actions are taken.The HerdVision data can be shared with the herd vet and foot trimmer, allowing appropriate intervention and long-term herd improvement. Many milk buyers are now accepting the HerdVision scores instead of the obligatory quarterly manual lameness scores, reducing the recording burden on producers.

A cost benefit analysis has demonstrated a potential annual saving of £22,169 for a typical 200-cow herd, or £111 per cow, as a result of more timely intervention, reducing the severity and financial impact of lameness.

Additional applications

Recent developments have extended the benefits of the system and the same camera is now able to body condition score (BCS) cows while they are mobility scored. “Early recognition of BCS changes will allow producers to optimise fertility and nutritional management, improving feeding efficiency, maximising yields and reproductive performance,” adds Mr Adams.

“For BCS, the system looks at changes in condition score, assessing every cow against a rolling seven-day average. This highlights meaningful changes that could impact on production and fertility, and allows producers to monitor changes in condition and look more closely at problem cows, or amend the diet to address problems at a group or stage of lactation level.”

A cost benefit analysis, carried out by Kingshay, demonstrated that using HerdVision to actively monitor dairy cow BCS has the potential to deliver an annual saving of £23,280 for a typical 200-cow herd, or £116 per cow. These savings can be realised through improvements in cow health and fertility, fewer involuntary culls, and savings in feed costs.

“Combining this with the cost benefit delivered from mobility scoring means that a system used for both purposes on a 200-cow herd could potentially save more than £44,000, or £220 per cow, each year.

And the technology is developing new functionality, which can be captured and reported by the current camera system. Oestrus detection and bodyweight are two further indices that have been validated, meaning the camera system could be a ‘one-stop shop’ for monitoring health and welfare outcomes in herds.With pressure on capital budgets, Mr Adams says it is crucial to carry out a thorough evaluation before committing to any investment to ensure the technology ticks all the boxes for the individual business.

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