Meet Smartbell, the data intelligence firm involved in a ground-breaking dairy cow project
A collaboration by the UK Universities of Reading, Cardiff, Essex and Writtle University College, the project aims to understand and address the causes of heat stress for indoor-housed dairy cows in order to inform future management practices.
The £1.24m project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, will take place at the University of Reading’s Centre for Dairy Research and six commercial dairy farms across the UK. Experts in animal and dairy sciences, mathematical modelling and statistics, and building design engineering will be involved.
Cow behaviour will be continuously monitored using tracking sensors that record patterns of movement, activity, and space use for each animal in the herd. Barn microclimate data – e.g. temperature, humidity, air quality and ventilation - will be obtained and combined with physiological data, such as cow body temperature and milk production volumes.
Smartbell, a Cambridge-based start-up specializing in tracking and environmental monitoring technology for calves and cattle, is developing a set of sensors that will continuously measure barn temperature and humidity, as well as carbon and ammonia emissions. The company’s smart ear tags will also be utilized for behavioural monitoring, providing researchers a detailed picture of the cows’ health condition in real time.
Behind the monitoring system
Smartbell was set up by precision data specialist Veena Adityan and mechanical engineer Jose Chitty, who together discovered a gap in the market for health monitoring solutions for calves. The start-up has since received a £1m grant from Innovate UK, received additional financial backing from the Greater Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Partnership, and raised further £100,000 in private investment. “It was around 2015 when we had an initial project focused on dairy farms,” he told this publication. “The industry is quite accustomed to estrus collars, for example, but there was nothing similar for calves.”
That’s how the idea for Well-Calf, Smartbell’s health and environmental monitoring system, was cemented. Initially, the company focused in developing monitoring tools to identify early signs of pneumonia in calves – a problem that could hit farmers with hefty vet bills and adversely affect the animal’s growth rate. But the firm has been adding more features to the system, which can now track weight changes or detect illness outbreaks.
Well-Calf contains three core elements:
- a smart ear tag, which gathers data about the animal’s activity and body temperature, as well as the ambient temperature of the barn;
- a receiver station, linked wirelessly to Smartbell’s servers,
- and an online monitoring dashboard, accessible via an app, where the data is displayed and organized
“The system can generate ‘trends’ for each individual animal, and also look at factors like group averages,” Chitty explained. “For example, it could help determine if an activity drop was to do with external factors such as cold weather, or it could be health-related.”
With the system being used at commercial farms – including at dairy ice cream maker Mackie’s of Scotland - Chitty explained how the technology was adapted to suit the needs of each client. “We worked with a calf rearing unit in Scotland, we’ve also worked with a dairy farm and a more intensive dairy farm as well as an organic outdoor dairy farm,” he explained.
“They all focused on slightly different things - for example, for the calf rearer, we created dashboards in the app to look at what the growth rates were.
“At the dairy, we were looking at reducing antibiotic usage, so we customized the dashboard so that when you accessed the app, you could see a color-coded treatment calendar with all treatments that were coming up. Or you could monitor if there was an outbreak of a specific disease.
“So it’s a very visual tool for the farm manager and for being able to track how treatment is working or how a disease is spreading from one week to the next.”
The company has also secured its first client in the US and will install an environmental monitoring system there during the summer.
‘Unprecedented level of detail’
Smartbell’s technology will play a key role in academic research into how indoor-housed dairy cows adapt to heat stress. The company is developing custom sensor technology that would capture ammonia and carbon emissions data in addition to environmental and animal behavior information. The data collected will inform development of housing designed to reduce heat stress and improve welfare. According to the researchers, using precision data to model how building design influences barn microclimates and cow health behavior has never been done before in this way.
“Our tracking sensors will allow us to analyse how indoor-housed dairy cows respond to, and cope with, heat stress in an unprecedented level of detail,” said Edward Codling, professor of mathematical biology at the University of Essex.
“By combining animal tracking data with continuous sensor monitoring of barn microclimates, we will be able to model and predict the complex interactions between cow behavioural choices and their housed environment.”
Chris Reynolds, professor of Animal and Dairy Sciences at the University of Reading, added: “Heat stress due to climate change could have severe negative consequences for the health and productivity of dairy cows. Lactating cows have a high rate of metabolism, which makes them less tolerant of high temperatures. Research is essential to inform and shape future cow management strategies and building designs.”
Smartbell and fellow Cambridge-based tracking solutions maker Omnisense are both involved in the project, which is expected to commence in Spring 2023.