Applying a Precision Farming Approach to Dairy Production to Reduce Disease Impacts & Antimicrobial Usage through Early Detection of Health Alerts using Sensors: A Pilot Study

Suboptimal health and welfare and inefficiencies in reproduction within the UK cattle industry are significant and cost the livestock industry millions of pounds each year. Problems include health challenges that reduce production and drive antimicrobial use such as:

  • Mastitis: The challenge of mastitis and suboptimal milk quality remains one of the most significant for dairy farmers globally. Mastitis costs the UK dairy industry ~£180m/annum through reduced productivity, wasted product and disposal costs and has major health and welfare impacts for affected cows.
  • Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD): An estimated 1.9M animals in the UK are affected by BRD each year. Up to 20% of all growing calves present ante-mortem with BRD but 36.6% present with some lung pathology at slaughter. Such lesions may lower growth rates by >0.2 kg daily and cost producers around £30-80/animal at-risk; increasing to £500 if an animal dies. Of these costs, 60% are hidden costs such as reduced liveweight gains (LWG) through reduced FCE. Poor LWG are difficult to measure, often going unnoticed for months when early detection of disease is not available.

From a ‘One Health’ perspective, the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance have highlighted BRD and mastitis as target areas to respond to Lord O’Neill’s antimicrobial resistance review. Antimicrobial availability and use remain a key tool for vets in the treatment of animals therefore their use must be safeguarded.

The RAFT Farm Network and Operational Group (RFNOG) was formed by RAFT Solutions in communication with its shareholder practice Bishopton Veterinary Group through a series of meetings and farm visits. The aim of RAFT Solutions and the RFNOG is to provide applied solutions to the practical problems of profitably producing good quality safe food from healthy, high welfare animals with minimal waste. A number of RFNOG farms were equipped with various sensors, including activity meters, and in some cases radio-frequency identification (RFID) temperature sensors. Connections were made with a range of academic institutions.

The project aim was to engage with the key issues identified above, evaluating the impact of early warning disease sensors on decision making (‘precision decisions’). The specific approach involved using RFID temperature sensors placed into the rumen via bolus application. Infectious disease challenges such as mastitis, metritis or respiratory disease tend to stimulate temperature rise, often well in advance of clinical signs becoming apparent. In conjunction, perturbations in daily milk yield and activity data were analysed as commonly available ‘sensors’ and this has led to further interaction with academia.

The group has participated in a significant range of projects in addition to the pilot study, contributing data and know-how. This has resulted in two high impact publications in 2020 in Journal of Dairy Science (JDS) authored by Jonathan Statham & Harriet Scott and links with Horizon 20-20 (H2020) project ‘GenTORE’ as well as building bridges to a significant group of EU and wider global academic centres. Additional benefits include commercial contract research income for farmers in the group and the establishing of weather station capability for future research with the group.

This pilot project was funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.