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Herd health monitoring

An expert round table discussed the impact of using health monitors in dairy cattle

22 April 2020, at 9:00am

Technology that automatically monitors movement in cattle may prove vital in improving the mental health of dairy farmers, according to speakers at a round table discussion on the future of UK dairying.

The devices either worn on a collar or inserted into the cow’s ear can reduce much of the uncertainty felt by farmers about the health and performance of their stock and massively improve the quality of life for workers in an increasingly high-pressure industry, they said.

“These devices are the best herd managers in the business – they are looking at the cow every few minutes and asking them – ‘Are you alright?’ and ‘Are you in heat?’ With this technology we will know what she is up to at any time,” said Paul Westaway, business manager for the company that developed the equipment, Allflex Livestock Intelligence.

The meeting at BVA headquarters in London was organised by Allflex’s parent company, MSD Animal Health, and assembled an international team of farmers, vets and agricultural economists to address the many challenges facing the industry.

Cheshire-based dairy farmer Richard Edge felt that his own business epitomised the changes that have been occurring in the dairy industry throughout Europe. In just one generation, that farm has grown from a 100-cow unit to one that is now milking around 700 animals. “It is all about doing more on less resources – we have increased cow numbers with the same unit of labour. That means we have to target our time and focus our attention on those cows that are sick and not have to worry about healthy animals.”

Dr Jude Capper, a consultant on sustainable agriculture, noted that these trends have placed increasing pressure on cattle farmers and have contributed to the industry’s “shocking” mental health record, with more than one farm suicide a week. “Anything that makes life easier for those people, while also providing benefits for animal health, productivity and farm sustainability, has to be a winner.”

Edge confirmed that there have been significant improvements in productivity since the technology was introduced on to his farm in August 2018. “The biggest change has been through much more accurate detection of cows coming into heat, which has led to massive improvements in fertility. That in turn has allowed to be more selective about the cows that we are breeding from. In the long term, we will be able to concentrate on improving the genetic quality of the herd.”

Paul Westaway noted that the other main advantage of monitoring technology was that it could detect signs of ill-health in a cow, perhaps a day and a half before these become apparent to even an experienced human observer. The technology will automatically send an alert to the farmer or vet allowing treatment to begin more promptly. “As a result, you will often be able to deal with a problem using anti-inflammatories or a drench, rather than having to administer antibiotics. So, there are substantial environmental benefits as well,” he said.

The typical cost of the equipment will work out about £20 per cow per year, Paul suggested. The current price of a replacement dairy cow is about £2,000 and so by extending the cow’s productive life, the technology will normally pay for itself within a year.

If the positive economic impact of using the technology is so obvious, then why isn’t it used throughout the UK and European dairy industry? Paul believed that one of the barriers to wider adoption is the demographics of the farming population. In many countries the average age of farmers is around 60 years and he felt that there was often a reluctance in this age group to embrace unfamiliar methods.

These farmers may need some encouragement and guidance from their veterinary advisors. But Richard Edge believed that word of mouth recommendations from their farming peers would eventually encourage many more herd managers to adopt these methods. Paul Westaway pointed out that another factor driving these changes in Europe will be productivity grants which are increasingly targeted towards technological developments.

Professor Raphael Guatteo, a specialist in herd health management at the Nantes veterinary school in France, acknowledged that many bovine practitioners will also need additional training to understand how these technologies will affect their working lives. “We are used to talking about One Health but we are now entering a time when we should be thinking about One Welfare. These developments will have an impact on the well-being of animals, of farmers and indeed their vets.”

But Paul Westaway warned that technology is not a silver bullet that will cure the economic and social problems affecting the industry. It must be part of a holistic approach, alongside other management strategies such as vaccination and herd health programmes, to safeguard the sustainability of the dairy sector.

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“We must also remember that we are under increasing scrutiny from the general public and will have to justify ourselves by showing that dairy products are produced according to high welfare and environmental standards. We must be able to show consumers that we are rearing happy cows.”