Research carried out by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) dairy research and innovation centre in conjunction with AHDB and Blade Farming, set out to find ways to reduce the economic impact of mortality in pre-weaned calves and consequently reduce use of antimicrobials.
By using precision livestock technologies, the study aimed to identify disease before clinical symptoms appear, therefore avoiding unnecessary costs, labour and drugs.
SRUC’s research involved fitting a group of calves with a series of health monitors, which recorded temperature and activity.
Speaking at a meeting held by AHDB, Marie Haskell, SRUC, who is heading up the project, said: “Using this technology is like having a pair of eyes looking at your animals continuously.
“If those eyes could flag up when they see something wrong, that would be very useful.
“Detecting disease early would improve health, calves would not suffer so much, you would not need to use antimicrobials to the same extent but, instead, you could go in with an anti-inflammatory first before the problem got out of hand.
“Looking at information from adult dairy cattle, there is a change in activity when an animal is sick, they are more lethargic and move around less. We used pedometers to see if this was the same with calves,” she said.
The calves fed from automatic milk feeders, used to measure total milk intake per day, number of visits, intake per visit, drinking speed, and take regular weights.
Temperature was measured in two ways. Rather than using a thermometer, they wanted to see if there was a way this could be done automatically.
One way was by using an eartag with a probe which reaches inside the ear, and a flashing light alerts of a change in temperature.
The second was through the use of thermal imaging.
The study concluded that feeding and activity behaviours were shown to differ in calves suffering from poor health compared to their healthy counterparts. This behaviour was also seen to start before the onset of symptoms.
Ill calves were found to spend more time lying, which also continued for some days following illness. They also had a reduced number of visits to the feeder and a reduction in total time spent feeding compared with healthy calves.
They also found liveweight gain could be significantly affected by illness in early life. The calves in the group with the highest number of diseased days had significantly lower liveweight gains than those with the fewest number of diseased days.
Ms Haskell explained this gives the opportunity to identify calves before they develop clinical symptoms, this in turn allowing for an improvement of treatment and management practice, minimising the impact of disease on the sick animal and limiting its spread to others.
In the next stage of the study, two Blade Farming rearing units will be involved with the implementation of the prediction model to help in determining disease status of calves in a commercial setting.
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