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New study looks to create 'happy cow measure' for dairy herds

Dairy cooperative, Arla Foods, has been working with animal behavioural science and technology partners FAI Farms, Nedap and Alta Genetics to determine how, exactly, to measure the happiness of a cow. The project is being driven with the knowledge that the wellbeing of herds is determined by how they are managed within a given environment, rather than which type of production system the farm operates. The cumulative data is helping Arla and the wider dairy industry create a ‘happy cow measure’, which, for the first time in industry history, looks to automate the measurement of mental wellbeing for cows.

The project is being led by the Arla UK 360 Programme, an initiative supported by Aldi and Morrisons and developed by Arla’s UK farmers, with the aim of making practices more sustainable, responsible and efficient. The Happy Cow project is being spearheaded at the Arla UK 360 Innovation Farm based near Aylesbury, where the herd are using Nedap sensor technology capable of tracking activity, behaviour and location. Sustainability experts at FAI Farms are now analysing data to identify key behavioural traits that signal changes positive welfare.

With many farmers across the UK already using technology to monitor and manage heat detection and early signs of illness, the potential to identify further uses for this data and technology investment is huge.  The Happy Cow project is working to show that the data already being captured on farm in wearable technology can be further interrogated to monitor cow behaviour and mental wellbeing, something that until now, has always been a ‘feeling’ rather than a tangible measure for the industry to monitor.

Commenting on the study, Arla’s Director of Member Relations, Alice Swift, said “Animal welfare is one of the key pillars of the Arla UK 360 Programme, so while our farmers have always placed the wellbeing and happiness of their cows at the fore of what they do, this study is going to be a very helpful barometer and blueprint as we continually look to improve.  Ultimately the study will allow us to map and measure positive behaviour among cows and therefore promote better welfare as the learnings are shared with the wider Arla farmer network.”

Project details: examining positive behaviour

FAI Farms began reviewing reports and analyses on what key behaviours can be measured, this was then tested by an animal behavioural scientist observing the cows at the Arla UK 360 Innovation Farm to verify and define key positive behavioural indicators which are demonstrated by individual cow and herd interactions.  These key positive behaviour indicators included social grooming, synchronicity and brush use, which ordinarily would not be monitored and never before automatically measured. While this set the benchmark for monitoring, the study also set out to see how these principles could be automated, to eventually pave the way for a scaled-up system.

Annie Rayner, Research Coordinator from FAI Farms added “Displaying positive behaviours brings enjoyment and pleasure to an animal, improving its quality of life. This project will not only further our understanding of positive welfare indicators for dairy cows but will also make a start at automating these measures. As the adage goes - You can only manage what you measure - We hope that by creating a measure of positive welfare, we will help guide and encourage farmers to provide these positive experiences for their cows.”

Technology partners in the study, Nedap together with Alta Genetics, installed a network of receivers in the shed, which in conjunction with sensor technology worn by the cows, primarily for heat detection and health monitoring, can also track location and movement of the cows. The project is now looking to interrogate the data captured by this sensor technology to measure the key positive behaviour indicators. With farmers well accustomed to utilising technology to assist their herd management when it comes to monitoring cow health and fertility, Arla sees a future opportunity to measure and manage herd behaviour and welfare by utilising the same sensor technology which is already in place on many farms.

Maarten Idink, Sales Director from Nedap: “An important part of our mission is to leverage our technology and data to add value to the entire food production chain and to contribute to more animal welfare, sustainability and transparency. Measuring animal wellbeing through our sensor technology and to make it a tangible measure could be hugely beneficial for both cows and farmers and ultimately, further connect farmers to consumers. We are proud to be Arla’s technology and data partner and excited to be part of this unique project.

Iwan James, Country Manager UK & Ireland from Alta Genetics: “We are excited and proud to work with our partners Nedap, Arla, FAI Farms and the Innovation Farm in the Happy Cow Project. This unique project will provide a new insight into the behaviour of cows with market leading accuracy and reliability. Whilst improving the health and welfare of cows it will also give consumers confidence based on real data that cows can be healthy, happy and show natural behaviour regardless of the farming system.”

Neil Dyson, the farmer taking part in the study, said “We have housed and grazed cows on our farm and it’s been really interesting to see the same positive behaviours displayed across the groups, showing whether they’re indoors or outdoors, our cows are content and we’re looking after them well.”

The sensors and receivers will remain in place on the farm so behaviour can be monitored and mapped over time, with the farmer able to access the information and watch for any behavioural changes so they can act accordingly to ensure the cows’ environment is a happy one.

ENDS

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