Two lines of photosensitive cells, a laser beam running the length of the cattle shed and a visual camera detecting cows’ every movements.

It may sound like a sc-fi film, but in reality it is the answer to many dairy farmers’ prayers in combating heat detection and fertility problems.

For William and James Goodwin of Hill House Farm, Lindfield, fertility has been an ongoing issue in their 650-cow Holstein Friesian herd for some time.

“With such a large herd we were missing heats, some cows were showing erratic heats and AI timing was consequently under pressure.”

Having used a series of heat detection tools in the past, the Goodwin’s felt a more radical and innovative approach to tackling the problem was needed and one that could reap early rewards.

Comprising overhead optic sensors in cow housing and the milking parlour that trigger a surveillance system, the 4sight system, installed nine months ago, has since improved heat detection from 50% accuracy to almost 99% and reduced calving interval from 450 days to about 380 days, says William.

“It works by acting as an auto ID system recognising each individual cow, while feeding back information to a PC in the farm office showing which cows are displaying either primary or secondary signs of heat activity.”

These records are updated six times a day, he adds.

The computer screen shows the exact start time of activity recorded against each cow number and the ideal time for serving at 14-24 hours post-activity, something Mr Goodwin feels has been a big benefit to all farm staff.

“We simply turn the screen on and check which cow needs serving.

We then pick the right time to suit the farm staff according to the window of time set by the computer, helping save valuable labour and reduce AI costs.”

The system is also capable of remembering how each cow displays oestrus, says vet Rob Drysdale, who has been working through the installation with the Goodwins.

“When a cow never stands to be mounted, for example, but chin rests and mounts others instead, the system picks up on this and still has the ability to identify her heat, which again is displayed on the PC screen,” he says.

“The 4sight system has allowed us to work with William and James to manage the herd’s fertility in a more structured and accurate manner, picking out cows that may be anoestrous or unwell and treating them accordingly.”

The system has also helped reduce the number of services required for each pregnancy, while increasing the number of pregnancies a day, he adds.

Mr Goodwin says the beauty of the system is that once installed there is a significantly reduced need for labour, helping free up labour for other farm tasks, which perhaps were previously neglected because of heat detection duties.

“All maintenance is carried out remotely by broadband connection from the manufacturer in Northern Ireland, so once installed we don’t have to touch it.”

Northern Ireland firm Fionn Technologies, says that while it compares well with other heat detection tools, it is at the top end of the price range as the technology involved would suggest.

It is better suited for larger herds – 350 cows plus – which can be housed for the 150 days or so immediately post-calving for heat activity to be detected.

And although costs would appear expensive, they must be considered on a farm-by-farm basis, as each installation is bespoke to that unit, says the company’s Declan O’Hare.

“However, in the average UK herd poor fertility costs about 170 a cow from lower milk yields, extra services and increased culling.

“Once installed the 4sight system has been shown to deliver a payback of 12-15 months in a 400-cow herd and on one farm is expected to lift yield by more than 1500 litres a cow a year.”

Consultant Dick Esselmont, who has been calculating cost benefits of the system in place at Lindfield, believes that herds like this often have heat detection rates of less than 50% and conception rates of 20% or so.

To keep the failure to conceive (FTC) culling rate down, such farmers now give cows as many as 420 days after calving to get in calf.

“The outcome in such herds is a calving interval of 470 days or so and an FTC culling rate of 20%.

By lifting heat detection rate to 90% and by increasing conception rate to 50% (through improved accuracy of insemination timing), the predicted effect is to lift yields by 1500 litres a cow a year.

“Calving interval should drop to 380 days or so and FTC culling to 2%. In a 620-cow herd, these benefits are estimated to be worth £236,000 in total or 3.7p/litre,” he reckons.

In a large herd like this, Mr Esselmont predicts 4sight should reduce vet costs by £30 a cow a year and labour costs by £20 a cow.

“In the Goodwin’s herd this would be worth £30,000 a year alone, meaning the payback period for installing 4sight is calculated to be just 12 months.”

The system also comes with a service and support package which is delivered to the farm and its vet, comprising herd benchmarking, inter-herd analysis, an e-newsletter, training and workshops.

chrissie.lawrence@rbi.co.uk