Measuring to manage

3D camera technology provides unbiased data

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — As consolidation continues in the dairy industry and herd sizes grow larger, management practices are evolving to include more automation.

Producers lean on technology to monitor the performance and growth of their cows. One such evolution is 3D camera technology to measure body condition scores.

“Continuous monitoring is key to effective management,” Fernando Diaz said. “We cannot manage what we cannot measure. 3D cameras are an efficient, non-invasive monitoring solution.”

Diaz, CEO of Dellait — Animal Nutrition & Health, presented information about the 3D camera technology March 21 at the Central Plains Dairy Expo in Sioux Falls. 

The cameras take measurements of cows as they walk by and predict a body condition score. The measurements and scores are saved in software that producers can access on their computers or smartphones.

Cows are identified with the use of RFID tags. Data can be analyzed for individual cows or groups. When looking at an individual, graphs can help determine changes in body condition score. Analyzing a group of cows can help find trends or anomalies.

The camera shoots infrared rays at the cows, which then integrate to create a 3D image of the cow. It measures distances between the hips and pins. The system also provides the stature of the cow. Each 3D image can be viewed on a device and rotated for a 360-degree view of the animal.

The system is most effective when the camera can view one cow at a time and the cow is standing still for up to 30 seconds. Common places for cameras include return lanes from parlors, feed bunks or water troughs.

“It gives us a very powerful tool,” Diaz said. “You check the cows without being there but at the same time always being there from your computer or phone.”

Diaz said herd health issues can be detected and solved by monitoring the body condition score of cows. He said statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicate that many cows leave the herd before their fourth lactation, for various reasons.

When measuring body condition score, Diaz stressed the importance of analyzing static versus dynamic body condition.

“There are dynamic changes in body condition score during critical periods, and 3D cameras allow us to measure this body condition fluctuation,” Diaz said. “The camera is not very valuable to tell you that this cow today is a body condition score of 3. It is valuable to tell you that yesterday she was almost a 3, and, tomorrow, is she a 3 or a little over a 3.”

Because heifers continue developing into their third lactation, it is not accurate to measure health by milk production or weight alone, Diaz said. The cameras help to combine the weight of the animal with the body condition score. Weight itself is not a good representation of the body condition of the animal because of the contents of the rumen.

Close monitoring of body condition scores enhances early detection of health issues such as ketosis. When cows are losing weight, they immobilize fat. Then, the ketones increase in the blood. Early detection is crucial for effective treatment. Substantial costs are associated with ketosis, and 3D cameras can mitigate economic losses, Diaz said.

One USDA study indicates that 31% of lactating cows suffer from ketosis.

“That’s one-third of the cows in the U.S.,” Diaz said. “So, you better believe that you have cows that are suffering in your herd right now, subclinical or clinical.”

If changes in the body are monitored through body condition score, a producer can theoretically anticipate what might happen to a cow. Most illnesses are treated more effectively when treatment starts earlier.

The 3D camera system can aid in lameness problems as well. Diaz referenced a correlation between lameness and low body condition scores. Lameness affects 25% of U.S. herds, with an average treatment cost of $360.

“Visual observation is subjective and time consuming,” Diaz said. “If you have to pay an employee to do this, then you introduce the factor of human error. 3D imaging standardizes the way we are looking at that.”

A 3D camera system can also be useful for heifer and beef raisers. A custom heifer raiser can monitor growth more closely and adjust feed rations accordingly. Beef producers can better anticipate the value of their growing animal. All of this can be reviewed without physically pushing an animal through a chute and onto a scale.

“The key component of this is the less intrusion we have in the life of the animals,” Diaz said. “This is a technology that will shape the future. We need to change the way we see things.”

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