WATCH: How precision tech is helping diagnose the health and fertility of Norfolk dairy cows
Copyright: Archant 2017
Precision technology is helping a Norfolk dairy farm to analyse cows’ fertility cycles and make a rapid diagnosis of potential health problems – with major benefits for animal welfare.
After investing in three robotic milking machines in 2015, Jonny Burridge has now become the first farmer in the county to install DeLaval’s Herd Navigator system into the hi-tech operation at Manor Farm in Fundenhall, near Wymondham.
When a cow voluntarily walks into the autonomous machines to be milked, the system takes a sample of milk and tests it for levels of three hormones.
One, progesterone, will allow the farmer to predict the cows’ fertility cycles with 97pc accuracy, while the other two can give vital early warnings of health problems including mastitis, a painful inflammation of the mammary gland and udder, and ketosis, a metabolic disorder that occurs when the energy demands of milk production exceed food intake, resulting in a dip in energy levels.
Mr Burridge said: “I am really excited about this technology. What we have always dreamed of for looking after cows is to know what is going on with them without interfering with them. That is exactly what this does by analysing these three hormones.
“The mastitis is the obvious one because everyone knows that is a painful condition and anything we can do to stop that and reduce antibiotic use has got to be good. Ketosis is to do with digestion, and so nipping that sort of problem in the bud is crucial to keep the cow healthy. And on the fertility side, it is all about monitoring the fertility of the cow and making sure she is cycling correctly and all of this is happening without interference by us, and without the cow doing anything other than milking.
“Our target is to have healthy happy cows that enjoy their life producing milk, without too much interference from us. If you do that, the end product is more milk.”
A grant from the Waveney Valley Local Action Group paid for 40pc of the £57,000 cost of the three machines.
The system can identify each individual animal, and schedule testing based on its lactation cycle. It will automatically increase the frequency of checks if a potential problem is identified, with the farmer notified if certain alert thresholds are reached. All the results are plotted on digital graphs which can be accessed remotely, allowing the farmer to react quickly to potential issues before they require major treatment, and to monitor the effectiveness of those measures.
Mr Burridge said: “It knows everything about the cow. That really clever bit is the software knows when to sample. Progesterone is the same thing you’re looking for in a pregnancy test for humans. So it is old technology, but this machine is using it intelligently.
“With the fertility it will trigger an alarm if that cow has had a rise in progesterone and then a sudden drop, which is sign that she is about to ovulate.
“We are aiming to serve her with AI (artificial insemination) between 36-50 hours after the alarm. Throughout history when we have been looking to AI cows or serve them naturally with a bull it is only been possible to observe their behaviour physically to know if she is ready and fertile.
“With this system, all a cow has to do is be milked. Before this we used pedometers on the cows to monitor their movement and we would see an increase in activity. You could easily miss 40pc of peaks, whereas this is 97pc accurate. The only reason for missing a heat is if the animal misses a sample. But our first priority as dairy farmers is to make sure the cows get milked twice a day. If you are not doing that you cannot call yourself a dairy farm.
“There is a welfare benefit to this because we can check the fertility without touching the cow, which is very invasive.”
The hi-tech diagnostics at Manor Farm have reduced the need for antibiotic treatments by 80pc – part of an industry-wide efforts to keep these medicines out of the food chain and prevent drug-resistant infections in human medicine.
Mr Burridge said: “If there is an alert it does not mean the cow has mastitis, but it puts them on my radar. If it is a mild case we can treat it with antibiotics, but if you get there quickly before it becomes a big problem, you can treat it with a bit of TLC without any antibiotics at all.
“With the information these machines give us, it has massively reduced our antibiotic use. I would say from how we were three years ago we are probably using less than 20pc of the antibiotics we were using. But you have still got to be very good at looking after the cows, and you have got to be on the ball.”