Project Description

Using leg mounted sensor technology to monitor lying times and lameness incidence – along with oestrus – is helping one Dorset farm to boost foot health and production.

Farm manager, Scott Bagwell believes acting on cow lying time information collected by leg mounted sensor technology has resulted in a 200 litre a cow increase, worth over £18,000.

The CowAlert leg mounted system records a range of parameters based around activity, steps and lying behaviour to provide information on lying time, whether a cow is lame, or in heat. Having trialed a mobile version of the CowAlert system on the 300 cows, predominantly Holstein herd at Field Barn Farm last year, Scott was so taken with the accuracy of heat detection and potential scope to use lying time information that he invested in the full system.

The technology flags up the average lying time for the herd and also splits out lying times for different groups of cows. Individual cow lying times can also be seen on a graph. The system quickly identified that average cow lying times were below the target of 12 hours a cow a day. As a result, Scott and herdsman Alan Steer started working to improve lying behaviour by tweaking management. Since then, average lying times have increased nearly an hour a day from 11.5 to 12.2 hours.

Alan says: “For a while it was a real driver to see if we could make five minute changes here and there to improve lying times. We have made nearly an hour of difference from tweaking milking routine.” Management changes have focused around reducing waiting times at milking so cows are not on their feet for more than one hour per milking, twice daily. To achieve this, cows are now moved into the collecting yard in smaller groups of 50. Moving cows immediately back to their beds after milking has also made a substantial difference to time budgets.

Improving lying times

Alan adds: “We’ve cut time off by reducing the time standing afterwards. We were making them stand for half an hour to get the teat end to close, but Nick Bell told us that wasn’t necessary. We have had no increase in mastitis since stopping.”

Independent vet and world-renowned lameness expert, Dr Nick Bell has been working with the farm as part of trial work with the CowAlert system. He believes lying time information is a useful management tool to aid cow comfort and reduce lameness (see panel), and that improving resting behaviour is likely to have a big impact on milk yields.

Since improving lying times at Field Barn Farm, Blandford Forum, average annual yields per cow have increased from 10,500 litres to 10,900 litres. Scott says: “I’d say half of the yield increase is due to increased lying times and half is down to better feeding practices and better silage quality.”

With the herd currently made up of 27% heifers, both Scott and Alan believe the benefits from improved feeding and lying times would be even greater if average herd parity was higher.

Nick explains that several research papers have shown that increasing lying times by one hour can lead to a significant uplift in milk production. He believes that it is likely the team at Field Barn Farm will witness greater improvements in milk yield in the long-term. He adds: “It takes time to see the return on milk as the cows that lose it at peak yield won’t get it back. I would think that they could continue to see more improvements as cows go through the dry period and calve again. Generally the build in milk yield takes a year.”

The herd is currently split into high and low yielders. However the CowAlert system can split out data on the computer to identify lying patterns in different types of stock; such as heifers and fresh cows. As yet, no difference in lying times have been identified in different groups. In fact heifers have some of the highest lying times, showing that bullying from older cows and cubicle rejection is not a problem.

Lameness

Improving lying times forms part of an overall farm strategy to prevent new lameness cases, reduce overall lameness incidence and maximise herd health and welfare.

As part of their M&S contract, the farm has to mobility score quarterly. However, Scott and Alan are keen to monitor lameness more regularly and use it as a management tool, rather than an audit. As a result, in December last year, the IceRobotics lameness alerting module was added onto the CowAlert system. This looks at various cow movement parameters to predict if a cow is lame (see box). Although early days, the pair believe the system is proving accurate and also identifying lame cows earlier.

Alan says: “The cows that CowAlert is picking up – even the trained eye would miss. It’s picking them up based on a number of factors, including locomotion. Getting on top of lameness is so important. It’s milk in the tank. An uncomfortable cow gives less milk. It’s welfare and welfare is paramount.”

To further drive lameness improvements, the farm has recently signed up to a lameness contract with their vet, Synergy Farm Health. This puts lameness control in the hands of the vet team, with vet Mark Burnell using the CowAlert data as part of the foot health improvement strategy (see box).

“We’re trying to catch it earlier than the human can,” says Mark. “There aren’t many cows we’re picking up (on CowAlert) that don’t at least need a trim. And hopefully we’re picking them up before they go lame.” Overgrown horn and very early lameness that can be difficult to spot by simply mobility scoring. The ultimate aim is to replace visual mobility scoring with the automated system, although it will take at least six months to determine the full benefits of the technology. Mark believes the system has huge potential. “Overall we should see fewer new lame cases and less developing into severe lameness as a result of earlier intervention,” he says.