Will the cows of tomorrow all be wearing fitness trackers?

Devices that measure activity levels can be used to tell if cattle are 
feeling poorly — but there are still some kinks to be worked out

Fitness trackers are all the rage among people these days — but they could catch on with cows, too.

But the idea isn’t to start counting cow steps or to up bovine fitness levels. Rather, the goal is to use fitness monitors as a way to detect illness in beef cattle early on.

Cattle producers have traditionally relied on experience and instinct to tell if any of their animals are feeling ‘under the weather.’ But tech companies are taking a very different approach by using accelerometers — devices commonly used in industrial situations to measure things such as vibrations in rotating machinery.

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“I work a lot with technology and one day we will have good technology for cattle, too,” said Dr. Edouard Timsit, assistant professor of cattle health at the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine.

But it appears we’re not quite there yet.

In 2013, Timsit along with Dr. Karin Orsel and student Barbara Wolfger tested the SensOor, a Dutch device that has an accelerometer embedded in a tag-shaped piece of moulded plastic that attaches to an RFID tag. It measures rumination, feeding time, and activity level of the cow and feeds that data to a computer via a router. A software program called CowManager then analyses the data for each cow and singles out those ones that aren’t eating normally or moving as often as usual.

The theory sounds good, but Timsit wanted proof.

“Is this tool accurate and how can we use this tool?” he said.

In the study, two observers monitored feeding times and rumination in 18 steers fitted with the SensOor. They watched the cattle two or three times a week over the course of a month to see if their observations jibed with the device.

Like a ‘fitbit,’ the SensOor relies on motion to measure activity — in this case rumination, feeding time, and how much a cow is moving.

Like a ‘fitbit,’ the SensOor relies on motion to measure activity — in this case rumination, feeding time, and how much a cow is moving.
photo: Edouard Timsit

What they found was the SensOor was accurate 95 per cent of the time at telling when the animal was feeding. However, when it came to detecting rumination of the animal, the accuracy level fell to 49 per cent.

“This technology seems to be accurate, although it needs to be improved concerning the time at rumination,” said Timsit.

“We have also found that this tool may not be valid in all situations. For example if you have a lot of flies, and cattle are moving their heads a lot, it will reduce the accuracy of the tool.”

And what about the device’s ability to predict when a cow isn’t feeling well?

Unfortunately, only two or three cattle fell ill during the trial — not enough for a meaningful assessment.

“We wanted to use the SensOor to see if by monitoring the feeding and ruminating of the cattle if we can detect respiratory disorders, but we ran out of time on the project,” Timsit said.

But the promise is there.

“The SensOor could be a great tool to detect acidosis, for example, as they are ruminating less, and that in turn could help detect BRD (bovine respiratory disease).”

About the author


Jill Burkhardt

Jill Burkhardt, her husband, Kelly, and their two children, own and operate a mixed farm near Gwynne, Alberta. Originally hailing from Montana, she has a degree in Range Management from Montana State University. Jill’s agricultural passions are cattle and range management but she enjoys writing and learning more about all aspects of farming.



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