Condition scoring could be the next management task to be automated using technology, with potentially big benefits for fertility.

At present, 3D imagery is showing major benefits in terms of improved cow productivity and welfare and such technology is now able to do so much more.

Initially, these camera systems were developed to improve the frequency and accuracy of mobility scoring thereby reducing the losses associated with lameness. However, according to Neil Johnson from 3D imagery specialists HerdVision, there are many other measurements the camera can take, making it possible to develop new algorithms to assess other key management aspects.

“We are seeing significant benefits from using the system to improve the accuracy of body condition scoring (BCS), with a large-scale farm study showing a reduction in calving to conception interval where BCS is monitored more closely.

“Cows need to be in the optimum condition at drying off, to maintain this condition while dry and then to avoid condition loss in early lactation. On many farms, the challenge has been condition scoring cows often enough and with a high enough degree of precision and consistently, both of which can be overcome with technology.”

Typically cows are conditioned and scored to the nearest half or quarter score, with the aim of cows being at a condition score of 2.5-3.5 at drying off and calving but this is a considerable range. Many cows could be in sub-optimal condition and changes in condition may be difficult to pick up, storing up potential fertility problems.

He says that automated condition scoring using 3D cameras has the capability to significantly improve the accuracy of BCS recording and has been shown to have big management and economic benefits.

“The camera takes a 3D picture every time the cow walks under the system. This means we are able to measure depth to an accuracy of less than 1mm. As it uses infrared light it is accurate in daylight and at night and therefore can be used at all times of the year.

The HerdVision measures changes down to 0.01 of a score, compared to manual scoring which measures at best 0.25 of a score change.

As the system measures cows every time they walk under the camera, it is possible to build up a better picture of BCS and assess changes more closely. The system reports conditions on a seven-day rolling average rather than an individual day result.

A farm study carried out over 15 months on four farms in the UK with a total of 4000 cows, demonstrated the impact of sub-optimal conditions on subsequent reproductive performance on different dairy farming systems.

“Analysing the data, it was possible to assess the consequences of cows calving at different BCS on calving to conception interval. As you would expect, fatter and thinner cows had extended calving to conception intervals. But what we were able to do was more precisely pinpoint the optimum BCS for future reproduction, which is a level which would not be discernible by manual BCS recording.”

The data show that at calving cows should be a condition score of greater than 2.85. Cows with a score of less than 2.85 had a calving to conception interval of 103 days while cows with a BCS equal to or greater than 2.85 had an interval 8 days shorter at 95 days.

“Around 20% of the cows in the trial were calving down below the threshold and suffering poorer fertility in the next lactation. As the camera records cows after every milking, these cows would have been spotted sooner allowing action to be taken to more closely manage conditions in the run up to drying off, so they went dry at the correct score and to manage them for a stable BCS over the dry period.

“At £5 per day extended calving interval, the cost of these cows being under condition was £40 per cow which means there is a good potential ROI on managing condition.”

The trial also assessed BCS change over the dry period and found that in many cases there were small, visually imperceptible changes in condition, but these changes were also significantly affecting reproductive performance.

The threshold was set at a 0.14 condition score change over the dry period. Cows that did not lose BCS or lost less than 0.14 BCS units averaged a calving to conception interval of 93 days with 34% conception to first service and 58% to second service.

Cows that lost more than 0.14 of a score had a 17 day longer calving to conception interval at 110 days with poorer service success rates, 23% to first service and 47% to second service.

“These data demonstrate the significant consequences of cows losing condition while dry, even at these very low levels.

By using 3D imagery it would be possible to keep a closer eye on how cows are managed while dry, providing an early indication of whether the dry cow ration is supporting the cow’s nutritional needs.

“If early signs of BCS loss can be identified it will be possible to refine dry cow management, housing, and diet to address the problem. It is also important to remember that cows losing even small amounts of condition when dry are already in negative energy balance and at greater risk of continued problems when they calve down.

“Being able to use 3D technology to monitor both mobility and BCS more frequently, requiring less labour and without disturbing normal cow behaviours can open the door to increasing herd efficiency and welfare, and help farms maintain productivity while reducing their carbon footprint,” Mr. Johnson concluded.