Sensor technology: blessing or curse for the animal?

Author: Maarten Crivits and Kristine Piccart (ILVO) - Date: January 4, 2019

It is remarkable to notice that the average perception of the relationship between animal welfare and technological progress is generally negative. People further away from the dairy sector are sceptical about ongoing scale enlargement and fear that the modern farm with its automatisation and sensors will lead to less and less care for the animal. The question arises: is this assumption correct? Although there are limits to what technology can do, modern sensor technologies can be precisely applied to more accurately monitor the individual animal and safeguard its health.


Scale enlargement is a fact. Not only has the average milk yield been on the rise in the whole of Europe, the average amount of milking cows is also growing steadily. This means that a lot of farmers are facing the challenge to run a dairy farm business with lesstime  available to look after each cow. One option is to hire external labor, but since labor costs are expensive and often family farming remains an important core value, the introduction of automatisation and sensors has made it possible to take over some of the monitoring work of the farmer, opening up several new pathways.

One typical example which is at play with scale enlargement is heat detection. In smaller dairy herds, it is said that one trained person can detect more or less 60% of all cows in heat by observing the herd 3 times a day for 20 minutes. However, in larger herds with over 150-200 cows, this becomes nearly impossible and overly time-consuming (for one farmer). A good sensor-based heat detection system will pick out most (70 to 80%) of those cows that actually are in heat. Moreover, its digital eyes are working 24/7, picking out those cases that start at night, which is important because of the short time window available for insemination.

Even more possibilities emerge when activity meters are combined with rumination data. Sensor technology makes it possible to closely follow the rumination, eating and lying behavior of the animal. In combination with data on the milk yield of the individual animals, health problems can be detected in a faster way. Recent studies have for instance shown that a lowered rumination behavior of recently calved cows is a serious indication that disease symptoms will develop somewhat later in lactation. The right action can then prevent these symptoms before they emerge.  Activity meters can also give insights in the standing/lying behavior of a cow and give indications about the housing comfort offered to cows.

Furthermore, there is a whole road ahead where machine learning and a more integrated approach towards health (feed, activity, productivity, individual genetics and history of the animal) will offer new possibilities to follow up the animal even more closely. Still, sensor technology is not always the answer. It is not flawless, it is relatively expensive and cannot replace the management skills of the farmer.

To end with, let us return to the issue of scale enlargement. We often assume that technology goes hand-in-hand with bigger systems. But what if a farmer wants to build a smaller stable -  say of 100 cows – could sensor technology and automatisation be an interesting option? If costs are well thought through, the farmer could sincerely boost the individual attention per cow, boosting the efficiency through the combined interaction of human and computer skills; this could lead to both increased productivity as well as optimal animal welfare. Time won in that sense could be potentially used to focus more on getting the market prices right, a key concern often neglected in these times dominated by technical optimization.