Dairy farming goes digital thanks to innovative monitoring system

Summary

A digital system that tracks the health and fertility of dairy herds could make cows happier and farms more profitable

Internet of Cows

Dairy cows could be online all the time, if a monitoring system developed in Flanders is commercialised. After three years of research, the MoniCow project has now reached the prototype stage and is looking for further investment.

The project is an inspired collaboration between animal scientists and researchers working on the Internet of Things, in which everyday objects communicate across digital networks. The organisations involved are the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO), digital research centre Imec, the university KULeuven, and the companies Delaval, NXP Semiconductors Belgium, Multicap, Metagam and SnapTonic.

In the system they have developed, each cow wears an ear tag and a collar which continuously collect and transmit data. A sensor in the ear tag monitors the cow's temperature, while the collar tracks movement and location. The flow of data is then worked over by an algorithm that produces practical advice for the farmer on the health and fertility of the herd.

For example, calving can be predicted up to 24 hours in advance when the sensors detect that a cow is eating less, chewing the cud less and becoming more restless. Similarly, when a cow takes more steps, eats less and spends less time lying down, it is close to ovulating.

The system also has the potential to indicate when an animal is sick or becoming lame, and locate cows that need attention. This is no trivial matter in bigger herds.

Wireless charging

The sensors are kept running with an inductive charging system, which tops up the charge every time a cow visits the feed trough or is milked. Flat batteries are not a problem.

The investment required for a herd of 77 cows, the Flemish average, is estimated to be around €20,000, which would soon be recouped through time savings and lower veterinary and other bills. "According to the model that we used, the MoniCow system can save the dairy farmer about €200 per cow per year," said Frederic Vannieuwenborg, an Imec researcher at Ghent University. "In that case, the investment will be recouped in just over a year."

The partners would now like to continue the project, testing and refining the system on other farms and with bigger herds.

Photo: MoniCow in action
Courtesy Imec