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Precision Agriculture by WELL-CALF

07 July 2022

Funded by Innovate UK, this project aims to develop the first cloud-based decision support platform to serve different levels of decision-making on dairy and beef farms. WELL-CALF’s precision agriculture technology provides support for farm-level decisions (e.g. health management, nutrition) all the way through to policy and practice decisions at the systems level.

The WELL-CALF project works to develop the first precision agriculture integrated monitoring system that was specifically designed for early disease detection or developing health issues in calves from seven days old to sixteen weeks old. The project makes optimising treatment and management practices at an individual animal level a simple and accessible reality for dairy and beef farmers.

The challenge

At present, both the dairy-beef market and the agri-tech world are much more heavily focused on older stock, meaning that technology and data solutions that monitor and protect the wellbeing of calves are less readily available.

Across the dairy and beef industry, farmers currently face three significant issues:

1. Disease detection

In the initial stages of a cow’s life, farmers have recognised the importance of early disease detection. Calf scours (a clinical sign associated with several diseases, resulting in diarrhoea) causes more financial losses to calf producers than any other health problem in their herds.

Additionally, the prevalence of bovine respiratory disease (BRD) or calf pneumonia during the rearing period sits at a rate of approximately 20%. It is the most common reason for death and poor performance in calves and young, growing cattle.

While diseases are ultimately triggered by the spread of viruses and bacteria, stressful rearing conditions across the span of the cow’s life can significantly impact the rate of disease contraction.

2. Antibiotic dependency

To suppress and avoid the spread of diseases, calf farmers are heavily reliant on the use of antibiotics. However, the overuse of antibiotics can quickly lead to increased antibiotic resistance and prolonged usage can enhance the persistence of antibiotic resistance.

3. The need to optimise efficiency

Almost half of all beef production in the UK originates in the dairy herd. Naturally, farmers face a challenge to constantly optimise the efficiency of the rearing of their animals.

At present, there is a large discrepancy in productive weight-for-age and health status of young calves entering rearing units from dairy farms. As a result, suboptimal early-life management is projected to be around £120 million a year, while the impacts of disease cost the beef and dairy industry around £80 million every year.

The response

WELL-CALF has been focused on developing a precision agriculture technology solution for optimising the production efficiency of the dairy-beef sector through improvements in health and management.

The product will consist of the following components:

  • A data collection system integrating a variety of sources of information from across the value chain. The system uses advanced sensing and farm records that contain the required environment and animal information.
  • A data analysis platform which continuously analyses data sources to provide appropriate real-time and automated health/performance indicators to optimise intervention strategies.
  • A decision-support system to optimise health and management protocols. The system was developed using expert advice from across the supply chain, including veterinary and animal science expertise.

The impact

The impact of the technology solutions that have emerged as a result of the WELL-CALF project has been significant. The project is currently in the process of trialling a wearable ear tag and companion mobile app to give beef and dairy farmers access to valuable data. The information can be used to spot signs of infection and inform intervention before antibiotics or any other veterinary treatment is required.

Not only does the WELL-CALF precision agriculture solution enhance the farmer’s relationship with veterinary professionals, but it also gives each farmer an efficient tool with a full and transparent history of disease information. When rearing and selling animals, sellers are equipped with accurate information about the health of the animal and can be confident that they originate from an ethical supply. By boosting consumer satisfaction and confidence, everyone in the supply chain benefits.

Cambridge Animal Technologies Ltd. lead the design and development of the ear tag and app with key support from other partners in the WELL-CALF project. Currently, the ear tag technology is on the verge of market readiness and is well-positioned to expand into other meat and dairy youngstock rearing markets to achieve similar results.

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