An innovative project will develop automated and real-time monitoring of a cattle disease that costs the UK agriculture sector £80 million every year.

The research, involving Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), Roboscientific, Zoetis and Ritchie, will focus on detection of bovine respiratory disease (BRD). This is a major issue facing beef and dairy farmers, causing significant costs through cattle mortality, veterinary bills , increased labour and reduced animal productivity. 

As part of the DETECT project, UKCEH scientists will take samples of the breath of cattle that are healthy and those that are confirmed to have BRD. They will then use a chemical ionisation mass spectrometer to identify which particular gases known as volatile metabolites are associated with healthy or diseased cattle.

This will inform the development of low-cost sensors that will be integrated into automatic calf feeders to monitor the breath of animals as they feed. Electronic ear tags allow the test results to be linked to individual animals.

This system of non-invasive, ‘passive monitoring’ is a new approach because techniques to obtain a sample of breath until now have typically involved animal handling, such as the use of nasal swabs or fixing a mask to individual animals. A UKCEH-led-study last year established the method could work.

Dr Ben Langford of UKCEH, who led that study and is part of the DETECT project team, says: “Reducing the impact of disease in calves will improve the animals’ welfare and productivity, as well as saving farmers money and time. It would also reduce the use of antibiotics, helping to combat antimicrobial resistance, which is a growing problem in the agricultural sector.” 

Respiratory disease, which is often hard to detect visually, means the animals do not put on weight as quickly. Dairy cows might produce less milk, while beef cattle have to be reared for longer to reach market weight, costing the farmer more in feed and vets’ bills. Disease can also kill cattle, with pneumonia the leading cause of calf mortality. 

The new sensors developed by Roboscientific will be trialled at six major dairy farms. The ultimate aim is for a commercial monitoring system that will alert farmers by text when a diseased animal is detected. This would allow the farmer to immediately isolate that individual and prevent the spread of infection within the herd. 

The system will be designed with flexibility in mind so it can be integrated into any calf shed or equipment to provide adaptable, automated and real-time monitoring of disease of individual animals.

Innovate UK, the national innovation agency, has awarded a £700,000 grant to DETECT. It is one of 19 successful projects funded through the Farming Futures Automation and Robotics competition, part of Defra’s £270 million Farming Innovation Programme (FIP).