The following is the first in a series of articles about different activity monitoring systems currently being used on dairy operations. The use of activity monitoring systems on dairies across the globe has broadened over the past 25 years, beginning with the use of pedometers and gradually expanding to allow the introduction of systems that focus solely on heat detection in dairy cattle.
SCR Engineers, a privately held company based in Israel, first began exploring activity monitoring systems 10 years ago. They now license a specific heat activity monitoring system for sale through two partners in the U.S., focusing on large- and medium-size dairies.
Doron Bar, chief scientist at SCR and a widely respected global activity monitoring system researcher, says the company first started to create electronic identification devices with activity meters one decade ago. At first, the devices focused on milk flow, like pulsators, and then transitioned to products like the free-flow optic milk meter marketed and sold worldwide today.
“We are always interested in looking for information about cows and trying to help these cows become healthier and have better fertility,” Bar says.
Bar started working in the dairy industry as a dairy manager and then decided to learn more about cows, so he traveled to Switzerland to study veterinary medicine.
In 2004, he pursued a doctorate from Cornell University that focused on the cost of mastitis for dairy producers. Upon completion of his doctorate, Bar returned to Israel and joined the team of researchers at SCR.
Heatime R Tag
Bar explains that the current heat detection activity monitoring system, the Heatime R Tag, is very different from the device that was first developed. However, he states that the first system had already integrated key, innovative ideas such as the two-hour interval period in the tag’s memory.
“This tag does not just average the activity between readings, but instead recalls the information per hour,” Bar says. “It is like a minicomputer inside of the tag.”
In 2004, SCR developed the three-dimensional accelerometer for the tag, which is the actual measuring device or meter. Accelerometers are becoming an industry standard and are used in a wide variety of applications, including smartphones. Most smartphones today use accelerometer technology, one of which is the phone’s tilt sensor.
Accelerometers are responsible for automatically detecting and changing from a vertical to horizontal position or vice versa when the phone rotates.
In the beginning, the Heatime system was part of a complete herd management system that included other electronic monitoring features. Then, researchers started to analyze exactly how the cows’ movements were related to estrus behavior. The system became predictive enough of estrus behavior that SCR then decided to create a separate system that would just serve the purpose of heat detection.
“For example, a cow low in estrogen or even a cow that, judging by her progesterone levels, should be in heat will show very low heat activity,” Bar says. “If a cow does express estrus and is also ovulating, then we see very strong heat activity from her in the system.”
How the system works
The Heatime R Tag is basically a collar tag that monitors individual cows’ activity levels and the intensity of that activity. Depending on the activity recorded for an individual cow, the system will trigger and inform the producer when the cow is in heat. The producer can also pull up the records from that cow and even see graphs that detail the cow’s past activity.
When the heat activity meter is used solely as a stand-alone system, the user can pull up two main lists of cows. One list will consist of cows that are recommended for insemination due to high activity, while the other list includes cows that may need to be checked because they have been flagged as being possibly sick. The system collects individual cow records that can be analyzed on a herd level.
The cows’ tags are read each time they come near a reader, which can be installed in many places on a dairy, including around water troughs or at milking parlor entrances and exits. When the tag is read, 22 to 24 hours of information is sent from the reader to a terminal where the information can then be analyzed.
The information is presented in a two-hour interval activity index. “Even if the tags are read two, three or 10 times a day, you always have the same information,” Bar says.
Accelerometers vs. pedometers
Bar says that the way his collar system stands apart from others, such as simple pedometers, lies in its ability to detect activity in a detailed way. He explains that, in contrast to pedometers, his activity meters can be programmed to pick up specific movements.
Understanding how his activity monitoring system works lies in understanding that a cow’s activity is measured, not counted. For example, if there are three cows going to a milking parlor where one cow is in heat, one is sick and one is normal, all three will most likely show the same amount of activity, in terms of number of steps. The cow in heat may even show less activity, in terms of steps, because she could be jumping and running.
With accelerometer technology, you are not simply measuring the cow’s movement and activity, but also the intensity of the activity, Bar says. The sick cow will show a low activity index because she has fewer movements that are less intense.
However, Bar does believe pedometers can function well as activity monitoring systems, especially when it comes to heat detection, because pedometers have 25 years of product development behind them.
“I won’t blame anyone for using pedometers on a dairy,” Bar says. “If the dairy has a very strict routine set in place, it can work excellently, and it’s simple.”
One challenge faced by activity monitoring systems today is streamlining the flow of information, making sure it’s not too much information and making the software easy to manage.
“We have a lot of farmers in our company, so everything we do is oriented to make this system a useful tool – not a complicated procedure,” Bar says.
Bar explains that creating durable materials to house the tag was one of the main challenges throughout the product’s development. The outer housing of the tag needed to last through years of exposure to outside elements like sunlight and humidity. It also had to be strong enough to withstand rough conditions and remain intact, like being bumped around or getting stuck in headlocks.
“All of these factors led to quite a long time on the development side of the tag,” Bar says.
His monitoring device has a six-year guarantee but has been reported to last up to eight years.
Bar believes that another major challenge to introducing these systems in the U.S. is convincing producers to change how they have been managing their reproductive programs. He asserts that his heat activity monitoring system is a good alternative to heat detection protocols currently in place on many U.S. dairies, such as visual observation and timed-A.I. breeding programs.
Current trends demonstrate that the U.S. is still not taking full advantage of these types of tools, when compared to countries in Europe and the Middle East, Bar says. Within a span of 2.5 years, this system quickly grew in popularity in England, accounting for its use in 30 percent of the breeding protocols used on dairies.
“Dairy producers understand that this is worth looking into,” Bar says. “I’m sure that this is the right way to go, because that’s the way we breed cows in our country and in other countries with great success. There’s no reason it won’t also succeed in the U.S.”
Currently, SCR distributes the Heatime R Tag to more than 1 million cows on approximately 10,000 farms all over the world through its global partners, including Semex and Micro Dairy Logic in the U.S. PD