Excerpted from the Irish Times (Thursday 16th August 2016)
Modern farming is run on hard-nosed business practices. Everything comes down to the bottom line, and that includes the fertility of cows on a dairy farm.
According to Jerry Henchy, chief executive of Irish firm Reproinfo, efficient milk production requires that breeding cows become pregnant every 11 to 14 months. The efficiency with which cows convert food to milk decreases significantly approximately 12 months from the birth of the cow’s last calf, with the cow eventually ceasing to produce any milk as nature is telling the cow that it is no longer necessary.
Failure to get cows pregnant within a prescribed period after their last calf can have a very significant impact on a dairy farm’s profitability. Farmers are consequently seeking ways to improve the fertility of their cattle, particularly in the intensive farming sector.
Intensive dairy farming involves keeping cattle in large sheds for most of their lives and is not practiced in Ireland due to the fact that this country is blessed with large resources of good quality grassland. However, worldwide there are 180 million dairy cows and 40 million of these are farmed intensively.
It has been shown that these intensively farmed cows are taking 30 to 50 days longer than the optimal time from giving birth and getting pregnant again. According to Henchy, the financial cost of this is some €3 per day. This results in an annual cost to the dairy sector of anything up to €6 billion annually.
Henchy also points to an environmental cost, noting that the less milk produced per animal results in a higher average greenhouse gas emissions total per unit of output for the farms.
The dairy industry employs a variety of tools and methods in its efforts to tackle this issue. Drugs are used to directly improve fertility, new technologies have been developed to better determine when the animal is in heat, and blood tests and ultrasound scans are used to monitor the animals and determine whether they are pregnant or not.
While these efforts have produced some progress the relatively poor reproductive performance of intensively farmed dairy cows remains a stubbornly difficult problem to solve.
At least part of the issue is the fact that the solutions applied to date are only appropriate for healthy animals. “They will only assist the farmer get cows with properly functioning reproductive tracts pregnant, and will do absolutely nothing to assist cows which have an issue with their ovarian or uterine function,” says Henchy.
Determining if a cow has such issues is easier said than done. One way of doing it is through an ultrasound scan, but while the scanning technology is widely available throughout the world, the trained operators who can interpret and make sense of the images are in chronically short supply.
Reproinfo has addressed this difficulty by automating the interpretation process. In what is believed to be the first ever application of machine vision recognition technology to bovine reproductive tract examinations, Reproinfo’s innovation effectively transforms the standard ultrasound scanner into a smart diagnostic device by enabling computer assisted interpretation of the video created by the scanner. Accurate diagnosis of reproductive tract problems at an early stage can dramatically improve the chances of a cow getting pregnant.
The development of the smart technology underlying the innovation involved an enormous amount of painstaking work by the Reproinfo team. “To write the vision recognition software you need a whole lot of images of cows’ reproductive tracts at different stages in their lifecycle and development.”
Reproinfo is a subsidiary of Reprodoc Ltd, which is the largest provider of ultrasound examinations for cows in Ireland completing approximately 250,000 ultrasound examinations per year.
The outputs from these examinations have enabled the firm to build up a library of almost 500 million separate still images, each of which is tagged with information explaining what the particular structure contained in the image points to in relation to the reproductive health of the animal concerned.
The software tool accesses this massive library and finds matches to the images being recorded live in the field to offer a speedy diagnosis without the need for an on-site expert.
The company has developed two routes to market for its potentially revolutionary product.
The first is by selling to agribusinesses. “We are not trying to reach out to every farm in the world”, says Henchy. “We are looking to partner with a number of the very large artificial insemination companies. They are now selling pregnancies rather than semen, and our technology will improve their efficiency.”
The second route is to work with the providers of the ultrasound machines.
“There are two dominant players in the bovine field, and we are hoping to work with one of them. A third area for will be herd management systems. We are partnering with the leading provider of herd management software in the US.”
Henchy believes the innovation will deliver a range of benefits.
“It will provide secure high technology jobs here in Ireland. It will also improve animal welfare as it will reduce the need to cull infertile cows. The carbon efficiency of dairy herds will also be improved as the efficiency with which the cow converts her food to milk will be increased.”