How happy are your cows? Arla Foods study examines cow mental wellbeing

Dairy co-operative, Arla Foods, has been working to determine how, exactly, to measure the happiness of a cow.

The project, in partnership with animal behavioural science and technology partners FAI Farms, Nedap and Alta Genetics, is being driven with the knowledge that the wellbeing of herds is determined by how they are managed within a given environment, rather than which type of production system the farm operates.

The cumulative data is helping Arla create a ‘happy cow measure’, which looks to automate the measurement of mental wellbeing for cows.

The Happy Cow project is being led by the Arla UK 360 Programme, an initiative supported by Aldi and Morrisons and developed by Arla’s UK farmers, with the aim of making practices more sustainable, responsible and efficient. The roject is being spearheaded at the Arla UK 360 Innovation Farm based near Aylesbury, where the herd are using Nedap sensor technology capable of tracking activity, behaviour and location. Sustainability experts at FAI Farms are now analysing data to identify key behavioural traits that signal changes positive welfare.

Annie Rayner, Research Coordinator from FAI Farms said the project will further understanding of positive welfare indicators for dairy cows and enable these measures to be automated. She added: “As the adage goes – You can only manage what you measure – We hope that by creating a measure of positive welfare, we will help guide and encourage farmers to provide these positive experiences for their cows.”

As many farmers already use technology to monitor and manage heat detection and early signs of illness, the Happy Cow project is working to show that the data already being captured on farm in wearable technology can be further interrogated to monitor cow behaviour and mental wellbeing.

FAI Farms began reviewing reports and analyses on what key behaviours can be measured. This was then tested by an animal behavioural scientist observing the cows at the Arla UK 360 Innovation Farm to verify and define key positive behavioural indicators which are demonstrated by individual cow and herd interactions.

These key positive behaviour indicators included social grooming, synchronicity and brush use, which ordinarily would not be monitored and never before automatically measured. While this set the benchmark for monitoring, the study also set out to see how these principles could be automated, to eventually pave the way for a scaled-up system.

Commenting on the study, Arla’s Director of Member Relations, Alice Swift, said that the study is going to be a helpful barometer and blueprint as it continually looks to improve its practices: “Ultimately the study will allow us to map and measure positive behaviour among cows and therefore promote better welfare as the learnings are shared with the wider Arla farmer network.”

The sensors and receivers will remain in place on the farm so behaviour can be monitored and mapped over time, with the farmer able to access the information and watch for any behavioural changes so they can act accordingly to ensure the cows’ environment is a happy one.

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