Benefits of using an automatic body condition scoring camera

Body condition scoring is often seen as a tick box exercise, but a new automated camera from DeLeVal aims to remove the hassle factor.

Body condition score loss post-calving has driven one Scottish dairy farmer to install an infrared camera to track any deterioration.

Aly Balsom finds out how it works and what benefits it has brought one Scottish dairy farmer.

Dumfries and Galloway farmer Grant Smith believes that if you get body condition right, you’ll make gains when it comes to fertility and overall farm efficiencies.

Grant Smit

Grant Smith © Jim Varney

“I think if cows are in optimum body condition, it basically leads to less days open and improved conception and pregnancy rates, which leads to a better calving interval and more profit,” he says.

Mr Smith has long recognised the importance of body condition scoring (BCS) and undertook monthly scoring by eye for the past five years, even before it was enforced as part of his Co-op milk contract.

See also: Automatic body condition scoring camera hits farms

He believes this, combined with improving cow environment and working with the vet and nutritionist, has been one of the main reasons for herd fertility improvements in the past few years.

Calving interval has reduced from 415 to 390 days and pregnancy rate now sits at 22-23% and conception rate at 35%.

However, with higher-than-desirable levels of overconditioned cows at drying off and about 25% losing three-quarters of a condition score between calving and 60 days post calving – versus a target of no more than half a condition score – Mr Smith decided to introduce DeLaval’s automated body condition scoring.

He also thought it would aid management as the farm undergoes expansion from 200 to 300 Holsteins.

“I thought it would be a really good, accurate and fast way to keep on top of BCS, especially on freshly calved cows,” says Mr Smith, who farms in partnership with his parents Muir and Lorna.

Although metabolic issues have never been a significant problem at Kelton Hill, Castle Douglas, the fact fatter cows are more prone to greater condition loss around calving and more likely to develop costly metabolic issues makes close management a priority.

Cows yield 8,750 litres a cow a year at 4% fat and 3.3% protein, with the aim to hit 9,000 litres a head annually.

The herd is split into high- and low-yielding groups, with the highs rationed for Mn+35 litres (maintenance plus), including 2kg in the parlour.

However, with production varying from 30-50 litres within the group and including heifers, Mr Smith says automated BCS could help cut feeding earlier.

“We could possibly cut down the cake in the parlour quicker for some higher-condition cows.

“It [automated BCS] allows more accuracy in feeding and cost savings. And vice versa. If you need to feed more, you can give more feed quicker, so you don’t lose condition as quickly.”

By flagging up any dramatic losses in BCS around calving, the system also enables health issues to be picked up and addressed promptly.

“Although a drop in BCS is expected from 0-50 days in milk, a graphical display shows if losses are greater than expected. This information can then be used to make management decisions.

“I’ve had a few cows that are possibly 30 days in milk, no heat and losing condition, so I have tested for ketosis using a cow side blood test.

“It’s never picked up an issue, but if it did, I would speak to the vet, drench the cow with propylene glycol and give her an extra 0.5-1kg in the parlour,” adds Mr Smith.

Speaking at the end of May, Mr Smith admits it is early days to establish the full potential of the system, as the herd usually has a three-month calving break from the end of April.

However, with the herd moving to year-round calving and a batch of bought-in heifers due to calve soon and the main herd calving from July, he hopes the system will enable better control of BCS.

So far he has been impressed with the accuracy and ease of understanding of the system.

He says: “Farming seems to be getting more difficult all the time, so something that makes it easier is always handy. Every open day also costs you money, so if you can keep optimum body condition, you can get cows to calve quicker and it will pay for itself in no time.”

See also: Refresh your memory on body condition scoring using Farmers Weekly’s video

Automated body condition scoring at Kelton Hill

  • Camera is fitted on the selection gate on exit from the parlour, producing a 3D image of the cow’s back at every milking using three key points – pin bones, hook bones and thurl.
  • A breed-specific algorithm works out a body condition score based on the 3D image.
  • The system, which runs with DeLaval’s DelPro software, is set to score different groups of cows depending on days in milk (DIM): 0-50DIM, 51-90DIM, 91-150DIM, 150+DIM.
  • Fortnightly and weekly trends in BCS created.
  • A graph is produced of every cow in herd by DIM, with BCS threshold line.
  • List of cows generated with colour coding – blue if BCS has maintained, orange if cow has lost 0.25 of a BCS, red for 0.5 of a BCS loss.
  • Individual cow graphs tracking BCS produced.
  • BCS targets: 2.75-3 at drying off; 2.5 when calving down (possibly 2.25 if high yielding).
  • Dry cows will be run through system weekly.
  • Cost: DeLaval quotes a cost from £1 a cow a day, including software support charges.

Research looks at automated body condition and mobility scoring

Ongoing research is looking at the potential to develop an automated body condition and mobility scoring system.

With funding from Innovate UK, Kingshay is carrying out the “HowsMyCow” project in conjunction the Centre for Machine Vision at the University of the West of England.

Kingshay’s technical manager, Peter Shipton believes BCS is an under-utilised method of assessing nutrition management and cow health.

“There are a lot of benefits from condition scoring, specifically in managing late lactation and transition cows. Metabolic issues at calving often occur due to overweight animals. We also wanted to combine mobility with BCS as Jon Huxley’s work (University of Nottingham), shows there’s a strong correlation between lameness and low BCS,” he says.

How it works

  • A prototype camera has been developed which takes a 3D image of the cow as it walks down the race after milking. This is used to create a model of the cow.
  • For mobility, the system looks at several elements of skeletal movement.
  • For BCS, it looks at the whole of the cow, from the short ribs backwards – this method has been designed to account for cows losing condition in different ways – for example, some may lose it off the short ribs and not as much off the tail head and vice versa.
  • The system uses the information to create scores for BCS, mobility and weight.
  • The cow is tracked against itself so any incremental changes, specific to that individual can be picked up. This enables earlier intervention.
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