Project Description

CowAlert has been integral to the achievement of ‘zero lameness’ on one Dorset dairy farm.

Busy dairy farmer Phil Randall has embraced a range of technologies to help save time and/or focus his time. Amongst them is the CowAlert system which monitors animal behaviour, constantly. It serves as an ‘extra pair of eyes’ to identify cows in heat and also those lame, or going lame. Consequently, both herd performance and hoof health have improved. In fact, the success of his lameness prevention strategies gained him runner-up place in the 2021 Cream Award for Zero Lameness.

Phil runs a 75-cow herd of Friesians at Goodens Farm, just south of Wareham in Dorset. Cows are grazed at least 6 months of the year, and yields average 6,500 litres of milk per cow with butterfat at 4.21% and protein, 3.26%. Milk is sold to Morrisons through an Arla 360 contract.

24/7 heat detection

Spotting heats was one area where Phil had recognised he needed an ‘extra pair of eyes’.

He says: “I’d always aimed to spend 20 minutes, three times a day to watch for heats. But I can’t always find that time.”

In the summer of 2018, he installed CowAlert to monitor the behaviour of each cow, using a movement sensor – an IceQube – placed around the back leg. This data – which includes lying times, motion index and step counts – is relayed to the cloud where it is analysed and translated into actionable ‘alerts’. Phil can view these on the CowAlert dashboard on his smartphone or computer.

Phil adds: “As well as picking up the extra activity that cows show when in heat, the movement sensors also identify the cows with silent heats. So, over time I’ve been able to further reduce my calving interval – from 380 days to just below 360.”

Preventing lameness

The siting of the movement sensors on cows’ legs enables their mobility to be evaluated. So although heat detection had been the original reason to invest in the movement sensors, Phil had foreseen that cow well-being and lameness issues were moving up the agenda for his milk buyer.

Lameness can be defined as when the pain in a cow’s foot or hock noticeably affects the way they walk. However, prior to visible signs of lameness, animals will be experiencing some sub-clinical levels of pain.

IceRobotics’ Anthony Cutler explains: “When a cow first starts to feel some foot pain, she may not become visibly lame, but she will start to change her behaviours.
“The IceQube on her leg records these changes. The CowAlert system then interprets these to produce a ‘lameness probability’ which is based on the data collected over the previous 24 hours.

“The results are presented using traffic-light coding: ‘green’ cows have less than a 50% probability of being lame, while those with a high probability of being lame are assigned to the ‘red’ group – these cases will likely be noticed and picked up anyway.

“But key to reducing the incidence of lameness is to prevent cases occurring in the first place by catching the early onset of disease or recent damage. Thus, the middle group of suspect cases – the ‘orange cows’ – are also identified and can be brought to the crush and examined.”

Foot-trimming

While Phil can foot-trim on a remedial basis, the main foot-trimmer for the farm is vet Ian Patton of Damory Vets. When Ian visits, he will examine the cows which are lame, and also those showing up in the ‘orange’ group.

Ian comments: “Cows are very good at masking pain. The sensors are extremely useful devices which can only help us to improve cattle foot health and keep cows’ feet in the condition which they deserve.”

Mobility scoring

As an Arla 360 supplier, quarterly mobility scoring of the herd is a requirement. Vets from Damory Vets conduct quarterly audits. Scores are also provided from the CowAlert system.

Phil adds: “My cows are also mobility scored by the general public every time they walk through the village to the grazing fields. I often see people taking photos and videos of them. They will soon tell me if there is a lame cow!”

Environmental strategies

Phil takes a holistic approach to controlling lameness and has also made several changes to the herd’s environments. “Prevention is always better than cure,” he says.

To keep digital dermatitis lesions at bay, and also harden hooves to reduce stones from being picked up, cows are footbathed 3 times per week. A new clean 3% formalin solution is used each time. If lesions are found during the foot-trimming sessions, footbathing frequency is stepped up.

Concrete sleeper tracks have been laid, and gateways are kept well-maintained. Cow and machinery access to the field is not at the same point.

To improve cow comfort when housed, and promote lying times, the shed’s old Newton Rigg cubicles were replaced with EASYFIX cubicles combined with cow mattresses and brisket boards. Sawdust bedding is now used instead of straw, and improvements have been made to the scraping system.

Phil comments: “All combined, this resulted in increased lying times. Cows did more cudding which allowed dry matter intakes to improve. It also meant there was less pressure on cows’ feet which reduced foot problems.”

‘Zero Lameness’

Phil admits that getting on top of the lameness situation required some extra time and effort initially. But new lameness cases are now pre-empted as the CowAlert system identifies the sub-clinically lame ‘orange’ cows so they can be examined in the crush.

In fact, nowadays, a lame cow is a rare sight at Goodens Farm, and Mr Randall’s successful control strategies earned him runner-up in the 2021 Cream Award for Zero Lameness.

Mr Randall adds: “A cow that is walking well eats lots of feed, produces lots of quality milk, and gets back in-calf because her backfat loss is minimal. The incidence of mastitis is also reduced as the cow is not sitting around in the dirty part of the field or skulking in the cubicle shed. So it’s win, win, win.

“And on top of the financial and health benefits, there’s personal pride to consider too. I am proud of my cows as I walk them through the village to their grazing.”