From cheese and butter to an ice-cold glass of milk, cows are a crucial cog in the global food and drink industry.
In the European Union (EU), cows produced 163 million tons of milk in 2016, according to statistics body Eurostat. This represents 96.9 percent of all milks produced in the EU.
As demand for dairy products increases, farmers are under an increasing amount of pressure to boost yields and ensure their animals are in top physical condition.
One business, IceRobotics, wants to use technology to assist the farming process. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, the company develops and provides data collection and analysis to help farmers monitor the behavior of dairy cows.
Data collection and analysis is enabled by a sensor being placed on a cow’s rear leg. “It’s recording data multiple times a second,” Douglas Armstrong, IceRobotics’ CEO, told CNBC’s Didi Akinyelure.
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“The data then is transmitted,” he added. “It goes over a trigger in the milking parlor, the data is… sent to the cloud, we run our diagnostic algorithms in the cloud and then all the information is sent back to the PC.”
The device provides farmers with a wealth of data, including information relating to a cow’s fertility. Using visual interfaces such as graphs, a farmer can monitor when a cow is lying down or upright. While this may seem like an innocuous piece of information, it is anything but.
“What we’re doing is we’re measuring the difference between today’s behavior and yesterday’s behavior,” Douglas said. “Whenever… she’s looking for a mate, she’s not interested in lying down anymore and her behavior totally changes.” Increased activity in the graph generates a heat alert so the farmer knows when a cow is ready to “serve.”
The data provided by IceRobotics’ system can also let farmers know if a cow is unwell. “Cows like to lie down,” Douglas said. “They’re either lying or eating or they will socialize, but generally speaking they will lie down for about 12 hours every day.”
“If they’re not, if they’re lying down for less than that or they’re lying down for a lot longer, then you know that there is something potentially wrong.”
Problems could range from illness to being lame, an incredibly important issue for dairy farmers. “A lame cow produces less milk than she optimally could produce if she wasn’t lame, so the farmer’s, you could say… losing money,” Vivi Thorup, lead scientist at IceRobotics, said.
“It’s also a welfare issue to the cow, because if the cow’s lame it’s a sign that she’s feeling pain, she’s got sore feet for some reason,” Thorup added.
Farmer Alex Jack has a 300 strong herd of milking cows in Fife, Scotland. Jack has seen the benefits of using new technology on her farm first hand. “The cow alert system that we’ve put in here has been fantastic because it’s like having a person with each individual cow all day long, collecting data from them,” she said.
“Every morning I check the computer and I’m able to see cows that are not lying for long enough, and that would indicate that there’s potentially a problem with them,” she added. “It’s also collecting all their heats, so we get more accurate with getting cows into calve earlier, which is obviously better for them and better for us.”
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