4D4F workshop on sensors for health

Author: Maarten Crivits (ILVO) - January 24, 2018

At the beginning of the new year, another meeting of the low countries was organized by the 4D4F team. This time, the focus lay on the use of sensors for health monitoring and the meeting was therefore open to farmers as well as veterinarians, both very able to discuss the topic of health.

In the introduction it was stressed that data without proper knowledge is meaningless. Every piece of data – hi-tech or low-tech -  is only useful if you know what is important to look at. This was illustrated by several of the speakers. 

Niels Achten (LIBA) stressed the importance of the transition period, a crucial period between drying-off and the peak milk production. A cow goes through a lot of changes in that period and this needs to be monitored carefully. Research showed that there is a positive correlation between a dry-off period of about 50 days and a more efficient production of milk later on in the lactation stage. Less or more than 50 days has shown to be less efficient in terms of body condition (more days) and future milk yield (less days). When cows are in the dry phase, nutrition management is crucial to curb the negative energy balance of the cow. Feeding needs to be in precise balance with the needs of the cow: for example between 8-11kg of dry matter intake, 12 % crude protein, 2.5. gram of magnesium and a lot of water. In this case a sensor that tracks eating and rumination behavior can become a good tool. Within the audience, two farmers did have such a sensor but they were not yet using it to that end. 

But not only high-tech solutions can help farmers. Niels also indicated the importance of two very simple yet efficient tools, that are often not used by farmers yet, but are indispensible to use the first 21 days after calving. A ketone meter (costs about 50-100 euro) in order to monitor the negative energy balance and a simple thermometer in order to precisely track when a cow gets sick, as the result of a temporarily weakened immune system.  

Kristine Piccart (ILVO), who introduced us to the different sensors for health monitoring, gave a good overview of what can be found on the market and which functionalities each sensor has. This will be further developed on this website soon, when 4D4F presents its Warehouse of technologies.  Kristine also stressed the importance of knowing what to look for in sensor data. She indicated the importance of knowing the normal daily behaviour of the cow. The ideal day of a cow: Lying and rumination (about 12-14 hour), Eating and rumination (about 6 hours), Drinking (5-10 minutes), Milking and social behaviour (about 4-6 hours). Knowing what is normal than translates into knowing when something is wrong: does a cow ly too much, does he eat less, is he eating too much and why??

It were precisely these kinds of ‘deviations of the normal’ that were illustrated by Edwin Voermans, Dairy farmer from Graauw (NL), who uses CowManager ear sensors (Agis) with a built-in functionality to monitor health. He showed several screen shots from the software program which shows behavioral graphs of his cows, both on individual as well as herd level. These graphs show the proportion of high activity (red), low activity (orange), non-active (yellow), eating (green) and rumination (blue) on a day-to-day basis. Edwin illustrated the usefulness to detect diseases, for instance when a sudden drop in activity (i.e. the yellow bar (non-activity) suddenly increasing on one specific day) indicated a case of milk fever. This was further confirmed by a drop in ear temperature (see graphs). He also illustrated the usefulness of behavioral graphs on herd level. For instance, the average cow on Edwin’s farm stood about 4 hours eating and was about 8.5 hours ruminating. When a change was made in feeding strategy - less water in corn and adding of wheat straw- analysis showed that cows began to eat less (or: standing and seeking less at the feed rack) but ruminated more, on average. This was a confirmation for the farmer that his feeding strategy was successful.

The day was ended with a farm visit, where further discussion unfolded. We are looking forward to our next 4D4F meeting!

Drop in rumination, eating behavior of one cow, in parrallel with drop in ear temperature on the same day, indicating milk fever.  

(source: http://www.agis.nl/SamenwerkingInnovatie/MelkveehouderDecisionSupportSystem2010-2011.pdf)