The animal article of the month for October is an animal board invited review entitled ‘Precision livestock farming for dairy cows with a focus on oestrus detection

By  the mid 1990s, after ten years of development, we had working robotic milkers. Once it launched on farms we could turn to the question “How do we monitor cows when there are no humans?”

We have changed cattle health monitoring more in the past twenty years than in the past 10000 years, with a wide range of techniques to improve the automated monitoring of the dairy cow replacing human observation. On a typical developed world farm you will now routinely find collar technologies for detecting oestrus, location and feeding behaviour, inline sensors for mastitis and a computer system looking for data anomalies.  Sadly, few farmers use the technology effectively and during the same period the crisis in dairy cow fertility has got worse with average calving indices now around 440 days.

In this invited review nearly twenty years on from Mottram (1997)[i], I tried to identify the key precision livestock farming (PLF) technologies in dairying and their success or failure particularly in the area of fertility management.  New commercially available technologies such as wireless telemetry, biosensors, three axis accelerometers and algorithms are developing faster than the traditional route of slow steady experimentation in the academic world. The cost of equipment for research has fallen dramatically and the limiting factor is now the time and labour cost to report the validation of data across different systems and locations. There are still very few models evaluating the benefits of the technology.  I focused on oestrus, or more correctly ovulation, detection, as failure to get cows pregnant is by far the largest cause of cow wastage. The best behavioural techniques for oestrus detection are now up to about 80% sensitivity and specificity and these are still tested aginst the gold standard of progesterone analysis. At least one system is on the market measuring progesterone in the milk line directly and this does seem to be the best way forward.

The review focused on  those areas of high cost to the cow and the farmer (fertility, metabolic disorders, mastitis, lameness and calving). Accurate models of behaviour have been developed for collar and pedometer systems to detect oestrus: other measures (milk and skin temperature, electronic noses, milk yield) have been abandoned. Wireless telemetry has also been applied to develop boluses for monitoring the rumen pH and temperature to detect metabolic disorders. Udder health requires a multisensing approach due to the varying inflammatory responses collectively described as mastitis but treatment models for sub-clinical infections are still absent. Lameness can be detected by walk over weigh cells, but these systems have proved hard to maintain on farms and are likely to be replaced by various types of video image analysis and speed measurement. Prediction and detection of calving time is an area of active research mostly focused on behavioural change.

What is striking is how difficult these systems are to implement in operation on a routine basis. Although the technology is progressing steadily the ability to help farmers make better decisions needs new research.

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[i]           doi:10.1016/S0301-6226(97)00029-8

View the open acess review here

The animal Article of the Month is selected by the Editor-in-Chief and is freely available for one month. View the recent selections

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