AI ‘vet tech’ set to improve animal welfare and efficiency on dairy farms

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Igor Barilo
Image: Getty/Igor Barilo

Related tags animal health AI

UK supermarket Sainsbury’s claims it is the first retailer in the world to invest in new AI veterinary technology used to measure and enhance positive animal welfare on dairy farms, which could revolutionise the approach to cattle care.

In partnership with Vet Vision AI, a new spinout company from the University of Nottingham, Sainsbury’s is trialling new technology which has been designed to spot when cows are happy and healthy, and why. The cows are monitored through low cost and portable cameras which can be used by vets on multiple farms.

The AI works by recognising patterns in behaviour, analysing and turning video footage into real-time, accurate data. As well as monitoring behaviour, the AI will offer farmers suggestions on ways to further improve the animals’ lifestyles. Examples of this include housing improvements for better comfort and animal engagement and providing enrichment such as cow brushes, similar to a back scratcher, to reduce stress.

AI enables detailed monitoring of dairy cows Image Vet Vision AI
AI enables detailed monitoring of dairy cows. Image: Vet Vision AI

The ability for round the clock monitoring enables more informed decision making, as farmers will have unique insights into cow welfare that they may not be able to identify with standard vet visits. The continuous analysis of behaviour also allows for a ‘test and learn’ approach to the suggested welfare tactics.

AI on farms is an expanding area

The use of AI on farms is an expanding area, but what sets this technology apart is the ability to show when a cow is thriving, as opposed to just spotting illnesses and ailments. The constant monitoring can also identify diseases early, preventing vets having to treat disease later down the line.

Beyond the benefits for the animal, the tech promotes a step forward in farming efficiency as a healthy cow means a more productive cow. If, for example, the AI advises improving cow comfort through increased lying time, this then may lead to better leg health and more milk produced for the same amount of feed, as the cow is stronger on its hooves.

Currently on 30 of Sainsbury’s Dairy Development Group farms, the aim is to roll out the technology further next year. The SDDG was founded in 2007 to provide more support to farmers. It includes around 170 farms who supply Sainsbury’s with its own brand milk.

Dr Tom Angel, Veterinary Surgeon at Synergy Farm Health, said: "Vet Vision AI has allowed us to identify positive animal welfare on farms, such as increased lying times and cow comfort, as well as management factors that need addressing to improve these outputs. The use of the computer vision technology has then been able to assess the impact of any changes we have implemented, objectively revealing how the animals have responded positively to the environmental and management changes."

Dr James Breen, Professor in Cattle Health at the University of Nottingham, added: “I have begun to use this AI technology with dairy herd health clients as part of our routine monitoring of health and welfare. The ability of the system to observe the cows' natural behaviours without disturbing the animals, and to turn these observations into hard outcomes, is of huge value when planning interventions to improve foot health, udder health, fertility performance and so on.”

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