Cow and gait: 3D monitoring of animal health could reduce stock losses

Issue date: 06 February 2014

Cow in a field at Kingshay Farm

A new link-up between UWE Bristol and independent dairy specialists Kingshay will use the latest 3D imaging technology to monitor cow health in a stress-free and unobtrusive way.

The three-year project is supported by the UK's innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board, and aims to develop a system that quickly and accurately monitors any changes in individual cow condition, weight and mobility. This would speed up the identification of any potential health issues such as lameness, improving the welfare of animals and the sustainability and profitability of the dairy industry.

Currently, the UK cow population is around 1.81 million head of cattle on 14,500 farms. Low profitability in the dairy industry has led to a decline in the number of herds while the average herd size and milk yield is getting bigger. Around 27.1% of dairy cattle are culled each year, 70% as a result of health issues. Introducing an automated system in just 5% of this market could save around £15 million each year in increased herd lifespan, improved milk production and reduction in chronic lameness.

Dr Mark Hansen, from UWE's Centre for Machine Vision (CMV), part of he Bristol Robotics Laboratory said, “We are building a prototype adapted for use on farms that takes simultaneous images of each animal in 3D and 4D as they walk through. It will capture accurately their cow body condition score (BCS – a measure of body fat reserves), live weight and mobility, including gait and posture.

“These traits are currently measured by eye by farmers and stockmen. This requires high skill levels and training, but is open to the subjectivity of individuals. The new system will increase the rapidity with which these key quality and production traits are identified for each animal.

“The technology will enable cows to be measured unobtrusively, providing stress-free monitoring of hard-to-spot changes in individual cow condition and lameness.”

Professor Melvyn Smith, also from the CMV said, "The prototype will be trialled at a farm in Somerset. The CMV's expertise in vision hardware and software will analyse critical aspects of the animal's 3D shape and its movement pattern. This will enable earlier interventions for managing nutrition, for example at breeding time, or treatment for lameness."

Kingshay are already in contact with 2000 dairy farmers, providing them with key online data such as monthly production costs. Data recorded and analysed by the new system will form a database of highly advanced herd management decision-making information. This will enable farmers and others in the value chain such as vets, nutritionists and livestock advisers to make use of much more precise, consistent and frequent measurements, creating greater opportunities to improve cow performance and welfare.

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