Project Description

Case Study: ‘Eyes and Ears’ Approach Delivers Results for Co Tyrone Dairy Farmer

Meet the Marshalls

Driving efficiencies and profitability have always been priorities for Richard Marshall and his father John, who farm their 150-strong herd on 250 acres on the outskirts of Omagh, in the heart of Co Tyrone.

In Northern Ireland terms the farm is a medium-scale enterprise which they manage together – along with some part-time milking support at the weekends and over holiday periods. Milking twice daily the herd produces an average of 8,900 litres per cow per year.

It is a high input, autumn-calving system with a reliance on grazing. The cows are out at grass from early Spring until the end of October, which can be challenging in a region renowned for its high rainfall most years. Throughout the winter months the herd is fed a mixed ration of silage and concentrate.

Time for Change

As both father and son are fully trained in AI the Marshalls breed all their replacement stock using sexed semen. It is a high input system aiming to calf in autumn.

The efficiency of the replacement system was driven by Richard who was always keen to ensure their AI spend delivered the best return on investment.

“We hadn’t really analysed our herd management regime, but over time I realised that manual assessment was time intensive and not totally dependable,” commented Richard who started to investigate ways of improving and controlling fertility management:

“I’m a fan of social media as it’s a great way to keep up to speed with the latest farming trends. A few of the big dairy farmers had mentioned they were using a new health management tool – CowAlert – and it was proving effective. It sounded as if it was relatively new to the market and it interested me so I decided to do more research.”

Richard’s investigations resulted in him becoming part of an elite group of nine dairy farmers from across Northern Ireland who were the first in the region to use CowAlert’s cutting-edge technology.

Developed by Edinburgh-based IceRobotics, the global specialist in livestock behaviour monitoring, Cow Alert combines a robust sensor with advanced data analysis to act as the farmer’s ‘eyes and ears’. Working on a 24/7 basis it constantly tracks animal behaviour, identifies changes in health and alerts the farmer via his/her smartphone or PC.

“I was very impressed with the practicality of the CowAlert system. The sensors are easily fixed to the cow’s hind leg at milking time, causing no stress or fuss. The data collected is stored on the cloud and is easily accessed through the touchscreen interface in the parlour or can be viewed on my ipad or iphone. At a glance we can see how each animal is performing – it’s straightforward, reliable, and very precise.”

Heat Detection and Much More

Two years later and Richard and his father are firm advocates for CowAlert and the many benefits it delivers.

“Admittedly our initial focus was on heat detection,” commented Richard. “Like all other dairy farmers we wanted to improve our fertility rates through better and more timely management. Our priority was to reduce the herd’s calving index and increase the conception rate, but we knew our manual assessment system, which effectively tied us to the cow shed, was not going to deliver on either.”

Richard was aware of other heat detection products on the market, but what attracted him to CowAlert was the totality of the system. It offered so much more as it was designed to be a holistic herd health and welfare management tool, monitoring each animal’s health over its lifetime.
“First and foremost, CowAlert is proven technology. It has been trialled by the leading research institutes across the globe, including AFBI in Northern Ireland. This was reassuring in itself, but CowAlert quickly delivered results for us at farm level,” added Richard.

Time Best Spent

Time management was the most obvious initial benefit. Richard and his father were no longer tied to the cow shed as they didn’t have to manually check the cows for heats every 3-4 hours. Getting email alerts to his phone with herd updates and notifications of recommended AI windows for cows on heat was a vital bonus for the Marshalls.

“Dairy farming can be very time intensive so saving those few hours each day soon adds up to a considerable cost saving. This, added to CowAlert’s accuracy meant we weren’t missing heats, we were more confident about timings for AI, and most significantly, the conception rate was higher,” said Richard.

Since using Cow Alert their calving interval has reduced from 415 to 390 days while conception rate has improved by 17%, which they regard as a significant boost. It is also delivering additional cost savings in terms of AI spend.

Next Steps

With heat detection well established, the Marshalls were keen to see how they could benefit from the other modules offered through the CowAlert toolkit. With the support and backup of their dedicated account manager they started to use the lameness and lying time modules and quickly appreciated how the system can effectively enhance herd health and welfare management.

“We’ve been testing the new modules for around six months and they’re proving invaluable already. In addition to recording movement, the sensors monitor lying time using a innovative Motion Index and highlight any cows which are showing lameness or poor health.

“As we are alerted at the very earliest stages of risk, we can take immediate action, treating a problem before it takes hold of an animal. Again, the payback of early intervention is better for the cow, reduces veterinary bills and means more payback in terms of milk production.

“By recording such detail over a cow’s lifetime, it also builds a detailed picture of the overall health and welfare of the herd.”

The Future

As a progressive young farmer, with his sights clearly set on managing a highly efficient and profitable farming business, Richard believes CowAlert can only help him achieve his goal. His membership of the Business Development Initiative – a group of like-minded farmers who meet regularly through the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) to share best practice – has provided an important platform to discuss his experience of CowAlert.

“I’m very impressed with all aspects of CowAlert and the positive impact it’s making on our farming enterprise. It has changed our management processes for the better by making us much more efficient; it has freed our time making us more productive, and above all it has added to the bottom line, making our business more profitable,” Richard concluded.