Staying Ahead of the Herd with Technology

Published on Mon, 07/26/2021 - 9:37am

Staying Ahead of the Herd with Technology

Article and photography by Elizabeth Parks, ABAC Agricultural Communication student
Contributor: Dr. Deidre Martin

A combination of instinct and herd mentality allowed the cattle at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia, to quickly grow accustomed to the ClicRweight Bovine Solution.

“The social behavior of cattle can be very dependent on their herd-mates, and a few more dominant and curious animals can ‘set the tone’ for the remaining animals,” said Mrs. Britta Cox, ABAC Lecturer of Animal Science. “Soon, herd mentality will take over and all animals will become familiar with the new technology.”

The ClicRweight Bovine Solution provides an opportunity for ranchers to get ahead of the herd and monitor cattle health with twenty-first-century technology. The ClicRweight system involves the use of RFID sensors and overhead cameras. Remote sensing technology runs an algorithm on hundreds of pictures to calculate cattle weights as the cattle consume water. The scaleless weighing system includes access to invaluable data points and features such as average daily gain, water consumption, and fly control.

“The more data and information that can be applied to a situation on a ranch will typically yield a faster and more accurate diagnosis on cattle health,” said Cox.

 Since weights are measured daily, average daily gain, or ADG, becomes increasingly precise over time. Ranchers use ADG to determine when to adjust feed allotments, but ADG also provides insight into overall herd health.

“Changes in ADG could assist in isolating an issue. For example, perhaps you noticed one of your animals drastically going off feed and losing weight. When you evaluate the ADG records, you may notice that subtle changes were occurring with the whole herd or group of animals,” said Cox. 

 The Bovine Solution generates graphs and charts where patterns in weight are easily detected. Disparity away from normal tendencies can point to cattle health issues. “Cattle that gain weight are typically healthy,” said Dr. Mary Ellen Hicks, ABAC Professor of Animal Science. “Cattle with reduced weight gains as a result of illness is an issue that requires their body to use nutrients to deal with the health issues they are experiencing. This is opposed to having those nutrients available to add muscle and other body tissues during their growth and development.”

If the system displays an abnormality, and a veterinarian diagnoses a health problem, sometimes administering antibiotics is required. Mr. Doug Hicks, ABAC Beef Unit Manager, pointed out, “Many antibiotics are precision-based. We give so many ccs of antibiotic per hundred pounds of body weight. Not only do we not want to waste money, but we also do not want to administer any more antibiotics than necessary.”

Dr. Hicks noted that the cataloged information provides veterinarians with important insights into water consumption levels. “Since the system can keep track of when and how often cattle come to the water to drink, it is easy for us to see patterns and how the patterns are altered when illness is still subclinical,” she said.

An understanding of cattle behavior aids an animal health professional in interpreting water consumption levels. Both increased and decreased water consumption could signal health problems.

“Typically, when cattle become ill, they tend to isolate themselves from the herd. This could lead to reduced trips to the water trough due to lack of energy, desire to be away from the herd, and/or because they may be lethargic and go off feed. Declined water consumption often exacerbates existing illnesses as it dehydrates the animal and causes reduced nutrient conversion. Conversely, a classic example of a nutritional imbalance is a diet with high salt content, which causes increased water consumption,” said Cox.

Water consumption is not solely dependent on internal factors. “Some primary drivers for water consumption in cattle include environmental factors such as quality of water, a high ambient temperature, and water trough set up,” said Dr. Hicks. “Clean water is linked to better digestion and utilization of feeds by microbes in the rumen as well as better digestion of feeds and nutrient utilization.”

Cox pointed out that many ranchers use ponds as a water source for cattle, but ponds often harbor harmful bacteria and fecal material. The ClicRweight setup is a controlled environment covered under a shelter. Each stall houses a trough with a fresh, clean water source for consumption. While the cattle are quenching their thirst, the ClicRweight technology gets the job done with weighing occurring in each stall.

Mr. Hicks shared that the traditional method of weighing cattle can place unnecessary stress on handlers and cattle if handlers are not using low stress handling techniques. Since the ClicRweight system is integrated into the cattle’s daily routine, unnecessary stress is eliminated.

“It has been demonstrated that low-stress handling of cattle can improve overall welfare and animal performance. Metabolically speaking, the stress in an animal will increase circulating cortisol (the body’s stress hormone). This triggers a stress response that can include increased heart rate and body temperatures, along with immune suppression,” said Cox.

ClicRtechnologies also has plans to integrate ancestry data into the software in the near future. “Utilizing the ClicRweight system to track animals could make husbandry decisions easier. For example, if we have a group of calves sired by the same bull with consistently high ADGs, we can isolate that high performance to that bull. This could also be a valuable tool to the producers of those bulls as they can link live animal performance to the expected progeny differences (EPDs) and existing information on future herd sires,” said Cox. This example is furthered as Dr. Hicks explained that breeding decisions are highly linked to selected trait expressions such as carcass, docility, or maternal traits.

In a market where every head counts, a healthy herd is a competitive herd. The ClicRweight Bovine Solution presents an opportunity for ranchers to maximize the performance potential and health of their herds. “Herd records on performance are another tool in the toolbox of measuring parameters that reflect the health status of the herd,” said Dr. Hicks.

This article is the fourth in a series of six articles discussing the implementation of ClicRweight Bovine Solution at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. The next editions include a focus on agribusiness applications and a final reflection on the partnership.