AFBI and IceRobotics Partner for Major Calf Behavioural Study

An innovative research project on dairy calf behaviour and performance has been instigated by the Agri-food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) in partnership with IceRobotics.

The high-profile Automated Calf Monitoring study is the first in the UK to use CowAlert – the latest wearable technology – to monitor performance patterns and detect health issues in the first three months of the calf’s life.

Calf Behaviour Project

The research findings could help to significantly reduce the cost of calf management which is estimated to account for 20% of total farm outlay*.

Bringing together a range of datasets, the project is believed to be one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind, with the potential to show how calf performance impacts on the long-term health of the milk herd.

The project will be led by Dr Vivi Thorup, Lead Animal Scientist at IceRobotics and Dr Gillian Scoley, Dairy Youngstock Research Scientist at AFBI.

It is co-funded by CIEL, the UK’s livestock Innovation Centre, which is leading the way in the introduction of innovative technologies and processes into livestock production.  IceRobotics and AFBI are both members of the CIEL Network.

Key Objectives

The key objective is to show how technology and analytics can help farmers monitor and manage the health, performance, and welfare of their calves, leading to a more sustainable and profitable farming business.

Widely used across the dairy industry for both commercial and research purposes, the CowAlert system includes a robust sensor which is attached to an animal’s rear leg to trace and record its activity.  Worn 24/7 the sensor literally becomes the farmer’s eyes and ears, constantly tracking behaviour, monitoring mobility, recording lying time and alerting to potential health changes at the earliest stages.

Future Goals for Calf Behaviour findings

AFBI’s Dr Gillian Scoley first used IceRobotics’ sensor data as part of her PhD. She believes the new research has the potential to deliver significant longer-term benefits:

“Maintaining the health, welfare and performance of calves is vital for the productivity and sustainability of farming enterprises – but this requires consistent and continual monitoring.

“Irrespective of the level of on-farm stockmanship, relying on manual observation of young stock is not only labour intensive but it can be costly, inconsistent and often impractical.  Our research aims to show how the use of automatic monitoring systems such as CowAlert can bring added value at the early stage of the animal’s lifecycle, and ultimately bring greater efficiencies through reduced medical intervention and morbidity.”

Dr Vivi Thorup from IceRobotics added: “Researchers have used our sensors on calves across the world and for different purposes, but using IceRobotics’ sensors to monitor calf behaviour and report on performance via our CowAlert platform will be breakthrough on a commercial scale.

“With pneumonia alone costing an average of £43 per calf, any system which can help the farmer identify and avoid such expenditure is not only good for the farm business, but offers the added benefit of enhanced animal welfare, and reduced carbon footprint.

“We look forward to working with Gillian and the team at AFBI on the rollout of this very important research project.”

The project, which runs from August 2020 to March 2021 is match funded by CIEL. Lyndsay Chapman, who heads up CIEL, said: “Early intervention of health & welfare issues pays dividends when it comes to productivity and sustainability. This is an important opportunity to fully exploit the potential of wearable technology and deliver one of the first commercially available automated calf monitoring system for the farming industry.”

(*Gabler et al, 2000)