Cows in the Digital Era

Nils Zehner helped develop RumiWatch. The system allows farmers to keep track of their animals’ welfare, even if – unlike Zehner himself – they are not always with them.

Faced with a high workload, increasing numbers of animals and growing farm structures, farmers are investing ever more in automatic animal-monitoring systems. These save time by keeping an eye on all animals, everywhere and at all times. Changes in behaviour and health are detected early on, allowing measures for the benefit of the animals to be taken immediately. 

How do we learn about a cow’s state of health? We can’t ask her, nor can she send us a text from her smartphone. Or can she, actually? At Agroscope she can if she’s wearing RumiWatch sensors on her head and leg. Agroscope experts use such sensors to record the feeding and activity behaviour of a cow. The aim is that RumiWatch – the animal monitoring system – will in future send important information on the animals’ behaviour and well-being directly to the operator’s tablet or smartphone. In addition to animal welfare, this system would also help improve herd management and feeding. 

It all began in the barn

Agroscope developed the RumiWatch system together with Vetsuisse (University of Bern) and Itin&Hoch (Liestal, Switzerland). The system consists of a pedometer as well as a noseband sensor incorporated in a halter. The data gathered by the sensors are sent to a computer. The RumiWatch programme records and evaluates the data.

At present, the system is primarily used in research in order investigate various issues to do with ruminant nutrition. For this, it was first necessary to develop a measuring instrument capable of distinguishing the different pressure signals for feeding and ruminating. The improved system also permits the recognition of the swallowing and regurgitation of a bolus. 

Refined for the pasture

Ruminants, however, exhibit different feeding behaviour on pasture than in the barn, which is why the RumiWatch system needed to be refined for grazing cows. In particular, the automated estimate of feed consumption is very important in grazing. That’s why the RumiWatch halter can now distinguish between feeding bites and mastication bites. The ratio between the two types of bites might enable us to draw important conclusions about forage quality. This, too, is an important parameter for improving pasture management – for when forage quality declines, it is time for a change of pasture. 

Monitoring animal welfare

In addition to gathering feeding data, RumiWatch also gathers information on movement activity for the early detection of disease and the assessment of animal welfare. The pedometer enables the accurate recording of walking, standing and resting behaviour. The combination of the different data recorded is intended to form the basis for the early detection of future disease or disorders.

In the past, studies were conducted into the automatic detection of lameness. In future, however, particular focus will also be placed on time-series analyses, which among other things are to be used to record the biorhythms of the animals. 

Stepping into practice

The RumiWatch system has been used for research purposes since 2012, and around 1500 units are currently in use worldwide. The next step consists in making the technology fit for practice. This presupposes that it is simple to use, and can be offered at a reasonable price.

What works for cows could also do the trick for horses, which is why a pilot study was conducted at the Swiss National Stud Farm using an EquiWatch system. Thus, in just a few years’ time, cows and horses may be able to inform farmers directly as to how they are doing via text message.

The RumiWatch system is composed of a head sensor…
…and a leg sensor.
Sensor data are sent automatically to a computer.
For horses the EquiWatch system is tested.

Further Information

Documentary Film about RumiWatch