Clocking-in cattle put early warning to the test

Holstein Frieshian cattle with 'RFID' transponers fitted to their ears. Part of a research project into feeding behaviour by The School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University's Cockle Park Farm in Northumberland.'Pictured: PhD student Ollie Szyszka keeps a close eye on the cattle.'Pic: Mike Urwin. 300611

Holstein Frieshian cattle with 'RFID' transponers fitted to their ears. Part of a research project into feeding behaviour by The School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University's Cockle Park Farm in Northumberland.'Pictured: PhD student Ollie Szyszka keeps a close eye on the cattle.'Pic: Mike Urwin. 300611

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CATTLE are clocking in at a Northumberland farm in a new research project to monitor their diet and activity levels.

Scientists at Newcastle University are carrying out a trial of electronic ear-tag technology at Cockle Park Farm near Tritlington to provide an early warning system of animal illness.

The herd has been fitted with ear-tags that use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to clock each calf in and out every time they approach the feeding trough. The information is then logged by a computer to monitor their feeding habits.

In addition, the animals have been fitted with pedometers to measure posture and relay information about how active each one is and how much time it spends lying down.

The information will enable farmers to spot any changes in behaviour, which may indicate illness.

PhD student Ollie Szyszka, who is leading the project with Professor Ilias Kyriazakis, said: “Just as we know when we are sickening for something because we perhaps lose our appetite or feel more lethargic, animals also demonstrate subtle changes in behaviour when unwell.

“Like any animal, the earlier you can spot and start treating an infection or disease the better chance there is of it making a full recovery.

“You also reduce the risk of the infection spreading if you can identify and isolate a sick animal, but for a farmer with a herd of maybe 500 cattle it is easy to miss any early signs of disease.

“By giving each calf a unique code and tracking its feeding pattern our system is able to alert farmers to small, but significant changes in behaviour which might indicate the animal is unwell.”

The tracking system has been developed by university computing technician Steven Hall. Short-range antennae are mounted to the feeding troughs and pick up a signal every time an animal approaches to feed. The signal is blocked when the cow moves away.

The project was presented at the Annual Conference of the British Society of Animal Science in Nottingham.

Results so far have shown that cattle suffering from an underlying health complaint do show changes in behaviour.

Prof Kyriazakis said: “Modern farming systems have minimised the contact between the animal and its keeper so we need to constantly look for ways to re-address the balance.

“What we are trying to do here is find ways to detect early infection or deterioration of an individual, regardless of the size of the herd, so the farmer can intervene at an early stage.”

He added: “In the light of recent outbreaks of diseases such as Foot and Mouth and TB, finding ways of detecting changes in behaviour before there are any obvious signs is becoming increasingly important.”