Improved hoof health and more accurate AI timing, through using activity monitoring system CowAlert, has helped boost fertility and reduce calving interval on one Welsh unit.

While more and more dairy producers are installing cow activity monitoring systems to improve heat detection and boost fertility rates, the presence of lameness will always compromise the results.

Recognising that good mobility was part of the picture, Pembrokeshire farmer Sion Morgan is taking a two-pronged approach. He’s improving heat detection and AI timing. He’s also improving the foot health of his herd. And he’s doing this with just one monitoring system – CowAlert.

Accurate AI timing

Sion runs a mixed breed herd of 160 milking cows at Pantygarn near Cardigan. The herd is grazed from March to October averaging yields of 5,500 litres/cow.

In a bid to reduce his 412-day calving interval, Sion installed the CowAlert sensor system for his cows and bulling heifers in March 2021.

CowAlert’s leg-based sensors monitor cow activity 24/7, and an alert is sent to the user when cows are in heat. An optimum AI window is also recommended.

Sion explains: “I thought there was plenty of scope to improve my calving interval and improving heat detection was the key. I’d been using tail-paint, and also watching the cows. In fact, I’d put cameras up in all the sheds, linked to my mobile phone, so I could watch the cows, at least when they were housed inside. But I’d still miss heats.

“Now with the sensor system I’m no longer missing heats. And I’m getting better conception rates because I know when is the best time to AI. So cows are getting in-calf by the second service. I’m using sexed semen on some of the herd and I’ve been careful to only inseminate these cows within the suggested AI window. So far, every one of them has held to service.”

Sion has been able to tighten the calving interval to 380 days. However, this is temporarily on the increase as he changes the herd from a year-round calving pattern to a July-December block.

Lameness prevention

Sion also takes advantage of the system’s ability to detect the early signs of lameness.

“I’d got lame cows. So I knew I was losing out on milk yield and it would have been affecting conception rates. Cow welfare was also a concern,” adds Sion.

CowAlert flags up when a cow changes her behaviour in a way which indicates the onset of pain in the foot. This can be even before visible signs of lameness are seen. This gives farmers the opportunity to intervene sooner and pre-empt lameness developing.

The system calculates a ‘lameness probability’ of between 0 and 100 for each cow/ This is presented on the user’s dashboard using a traffic-light system. Cows with a high probability of being lame are assigned to a red group; those starting to show lameness-like behaviours are in an amber group, as lameness is suspected.

Foot-trimming regime

At Pantygarn, foot-trimming is carried out fortnightly by a trimmer from Sion’s vet practice ProStock Vets. Before installing CowAlert, the policy was to trim all cows 50 days pre-drying off and again 100 days after calving. In addition, Sion would present any lame cows for therapeutic trims.

Now CowAlert has been installed, Sion picks out any cows which move from the green into the red or amber groups. He sorts them out at the morning’s milking so they can be seen by the trimmer later.

Peacock Technology’s Willie Cuthbertson explains: “Getting these suspect cows into the crush to inspect their feet means lameness issues can be resolved much sooner. This ensures economic losses are smaller and recovery is faster.”

A freelance mobility scorer was initially employed to come monthly to identify lame cows and compare them with those identified by CowAlert. Results from these first few visits showed approximately 30% of the herd were lame with scores of 2 or 3.

One year on

After a while, Sion stopped using his ‘human’ mobility scorer. He now relies on the traffic-light coding for lameness probability. He benchmarks his herd using the automated mobility scores provided within CowAlert. Currently, there’s only one cow with a score of 2 and the rest are 0s and 1s.

“I rarely see a lame cow these days,” says Sion.

“I’ve also stopped the blanket trimming of cows at 100 days in milk. Now we only trim cows pre-drying off. And I rely on CowAlert to pick up any additional cows if the system shows they are suspect cases.”

Sion’s vet Hannah Childs of ProStock Vets comments: “Lameness continues to be a significant and very common problem facing the dairy industry. It impacts both cow welfare and farm profitability. Most notably, lameness has dramatic consequences on fertility, milk yield and risk of culling.

“The importance of careful monitoring and early intervention to minimise these effects cannot be over-emphasised. Sion’s farm offers a great example of how new technologies can help achieve such improvements.”