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Danish Dairies Adopt RFID to Improve Yield

The system enables them to analyze animal movements in order to predict which individuals are ill or entering heat.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jul 24, 2009Dairy farmers in Denmark are finding that an RFID-based real-time location system (RTLS) can help pinpoint individual animals within large herds, while also enabling them to analyze the cows' movements in order to predict which individuals exhibit signs of illness. Diagnosing and treating a disease early in its progression translates into improved farm production, and also decreases the chances that an animal will have to be slaughtered due to that illness.

Farmers are also using the technology to look for signs—based on movement and eating patterns—that individual cows are entering into heat and will soon ovulate. With this information, they can schedule the animals for insemination, which is more likely to lead to a successful pregnancy than performing the procedure based on a calendar cycle. By improving the likelihood of achieving a successful fertilization, a farmer can keep the cow producing offspring consistently, thus increasing the profit he is able to derive from that animal.

Several Danish dairy farms are currently using the CowDetect system.

The technology, developed by Danish firm SmarterFarming, employs active, ultra-wideband (UWB) RFID tags and interrogators manufactured by Ubisense. The tags emit a series of short signals (billionths of a second or shorter) at frequencies between 6 and 8 GHz. According to Ubisense, the extremely short nature of these pulses makes them less vulnerable to RF interference from objects and other RF noise, relative to conventional RFID-based RTLS technologies. Once a reader receives a tag's signal by means of a phased-array antenna, it calculates that tag's location by employing two complementary techniques: time difference of arrival (TDOA) and angle of arrival (AOA).

Keld Florczak, SmarterFarming's CEO, developed the animal-tracking and -monitoring system, known as CowDetect, after meeting with Aage Hindhede, a 10th-generation dairy farmer with a 130-head herd of milking cows, in Ringkøbing-Skjern, Denmark. Hindhede recognized that he, like other farmers in that country (particularly those with much larger herds), wanted a means of ensuring that each individual cow is milked multiple times daily, and of improving overall herd management.

Hindhede, now a stakeholder in the CowDetect system and Florczak's firm, is also utilizing the technology to watch for illness among his herd of 130 milking cows and 130 calves, as well as for detecting which adults are in heat. In the year since he began using CowDetect, he reports he has had more successful cow inseminations and is better able to prevent animals from becoming severely ill than in the past, when he relied only on visual inspection of the animals.

Three other Danish dairy farms have deployed CowDetect this year, the largest of those raising up to 600 cows at any given time. These operations employ robotic, automated milking machines, which the cows learn, over time, to visit multiple times each day, when a special feed is dispensed. RFID interrogators mounted over the robotic milking machines read a passive ISO-compliant 134.2 kHz RFID tag attached to each animal's ear, thereby verifying that cow has been milked. If the information collected by these readers indicates that a specific cow is not getting sufficiently milked, a farmer needs to find that animal and bring her to a milking machine. Before deploying the Ubisense RTLS, these farmers might have spent hours trying to locate the individual cows that were not being regularly milked. With CowDetect, the farmers know immediately where those animals can be found.

To develop CowDetect's animal behavior analysis element, Florczak and Hindhede worked with animal health and behavior specialists from the Institute for Agri Technology and Food Innovation (AgroTech), part of the Danish government's ministry of science. These experts developed a list of 14 indicators—such as the frequency of visiting a feeding station, or the speed and direction of travel—that would serve as the basis for the behavioral analysis. For instance, up to 3.5 days prior to developing ketosis (a common disease in adult cattle), cows spend less time eating. Animals suffering from ketosis may also have an abnormal gait and show other symptoms as well, such as aggression or bellowing. Ketosis is common among dairy cows bred and managed for high production.

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