Technology which can alert farmers and stockpeople when cows are about to experience calving difficulties has been developed by scientists at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).
Sensors placed on the tail and neck can be used to predict when a cow is about to go into labour and also whether urgent attention is needed from farmers.
The technology, created by Dr Gemma Miller, a postdoctoral scientist at SRUC, sees data from the sensors fed into an algorithm for a comprehensive picture of a cow’s health.
Dr Miller says the work has transformed existing technology used on in-calf cows.
“There are already sensors on the market that predict whether cows are going to calve from (measuring) tail raising.
“The novelty of this is combining data streams from two different sensors and feeding it into a machine learning algorithm. It has the potential to predict not just when the cow is going to calve but whether it is going to have a difficult calving. This gives the farmer some warning that the cow may need some assistance.”
The team’s work to create an algorithm and develop a technique to use it saw the biggest trial by SRUC on calving sensors; using 140 beef cows at the college’s Easter Howgate Farm, near Edinburgh, and 110 dairy cows at Writtle College, Essex.
Two sensors are used in the process; a neck mounted sensor to monitor eating behaviour and movement and the other on the tail.
Dr Miller says: “Because you are getting a constant feed of that data you can build up a picture of how that animal normally behaves and then you can look for changes in the behaviour.”
The algorithm developed can then determine whether the cow is about to calve and any levels of difficulty the animal might experience.
As well as the information from the sensors, the team from SRUC use details such as the age of the cows and how many calves it has already given birth to in order to assess how much risk the cow has to deal with.
While not commercially available at the moment, SRUC does work with private sector partners to send technology for use in the open market.
Dr Miller believes this new technology can help farms move into a more digital age.
She says: “Small operations are dying, it is the big cattle producers that are surviving just now. The herds are getting bigger and bigger and they are not necessarily employing more stockpeople.
“We are not trying to replace stockpeople, it is about making their lives easier. We are trying to give farmers the tools, as we move into the age of digital farming, to make their farms more profitable and free up staff time.”