eCow Ltd.

- Rumen Monitoring with farmBolus Software


The health of a dairy cow’s rumen is directly related to the overall health of the cow and therefore the quality and quantity of milk produced. With the growing demand for milk and reducing costs on farms, methods for increasing productivity have included a switch from high fibre diets to high energy diets (cereals and grains). While this method of increasing productivity does provide results, there are substantial downsides associated with the health of the cow which are often not visible to the farmer. In order to maximise milk productivity while keeping a healthy herd with a long life span, rumen health should be a top priority. The easiest, least intrusive method of monitoring rumen health involves the use of wireless devices swallowed by the cow to accurately measure the acidity (pH) of the rumen as well as the temperature. The eCow farmBolus boasts the longest life and smallest size of these devices, while still providing reliable data.

What is the farmBolus?

The eCow farmBolus is a wireless telemetric device swallowed by the cow that provides continuous and accurate measurements of pH and temperature inside the rumen (more specifically the reticulum). It records data at 1 minute intervals and saves averages every 15 minutes to provide 96 readings per day. This data is stored on the bolus and then can be retrieved every time the mobile phone handset is brought within range of the cow.

  • Early warning of SARA

Clinical conditions of SARA often don’t present themselves until months after rumen pH drops, by which time milk yields may have decreased. By monitoring ruminal pH you can detect SARA before symptoms arise and prevent reduced milk yield, reduced milk fat content and unnecessary culling.

  • Improved diet through pH optimisation

Providing cows with the correct balance of forage to grain to provide optimum milk yield and still maintain a healthy herd is not easy and varies from herd to herd. By using the eCow farmBolus you can provide your cows with a type of personalised medicine to tailor a diet to their specific needs, ensuring a long lasting healthy herd and consistent high milk yields.

  • Reduced Left Displaced Abomasum (LDA) through improved diet

LDA is common in cows post-calving and requires expensive surgery to correct. By monitoring the cows health throughout this period and adjusting diet to compensate, LDA can be reduced significantly in a herd.

  • Aids management decisions on feeding and movement routines

Using pH and temperature monitoring you can see how much and how often cows feed and drink, allowing adjustments in management practices to be made to maximise the intake and therefore milk production.

  • Improved use of supplements

Supplements such as rumen buffer that are used to prevent the pH of the rumen dropping too low are often recommended by veterinarians in high yielding herds. By monitoring ruminal pH it has been shown in recent studies that these costly supplements are not always necessary, as pH remains unchanged following their removal.

  • Monitoring of drinking behaviour and heat stress

Temperature drops in the rumen can be linked to drinking events and used to detect inadequate drinking facilities or unhealthy cows. Similarly, temperature measurements can detect heat stress and allow farmers to adjust management practices accordingly.

  • Detection of mycotoxins

The symptoms of mycotoxin poisoning in cattle are identical to the symptoms of SARA, aside from the drop in ruminal pH. With the symptoms of SARA and in the absence of low ruminal pH it can be deduced that mycotoxins are the likely cause of the symptoms and appropriate measures can be taken to recover the herd.

pH Measurements

The main feature of the farmBolus is its ability to accurately and continuously monitor rumen pH. The pH of a solution is a measure of the acidity of a solution, and as the acidity increases the pH drops. More specifically it is a measure of the relative hydrogen ion concentration and, as the hydrogen ion is electrically charged, it is possible to measure pH electrically.

When in constant use (i.e. within a cows rumen) the sensor readings can remain stable for up to 150 days (5 months), far longer than similar products.

Temperature Measurements

As well as the pH functionality, the farmBolus continuously logs the temperature of its environment. This information can be used to monitor drinking activity, as cold water entering the rumen correlates with a sharp but brief drop in the temperature reading. It is important to note that these events are not changes in the overall body temperature of the cow and should not be treated as such. However, changes in the average (mean) daily temperature of the cow’s rumen can be linked to an overall change in the body temperature of the cow. As it is consistently 1°C above the rest of the body, the temperature of the rumen can be relied upon to give an accurate indication of overall body temperature. Peaks in temperature are often observed when a cow is suffering from an infection such as mastitis. Infections such as this may also be observed as a lack of drinks taken and a drop in ruminal pH.

Summary of recent farmBolus Trials 

Between April and August 2013, a trial on eight commercial farms (Farm A-H) all located in the South West of England was run to determine how the eCow farmBolus could be used to improve farm economy and management. A benefit of this study was also getting feedback from the farmers and farm advisers about their experience using the farmBolus.

Farms were selected to include a range of feeding methods from fully housed herds with Total Mixed Ration (TMR) to grazing herds, and boluses were placed into different types of cows such as dry, fresh and early lactation. Farms had an average of 4 boluses each and farmers, vets and nutritionists were advised to put the boluses in average cows, no sickly ones, to get a better idea of the overall health of the herd.

A pH of 5.75 was defined as the acidosis threshold, as previous studies have defined it as 5.5 and the farmBolus sits in the reticulum which has been shown to have a pH about 0.25 above the main compartment of the rumen.

The initial data collected showed five of the eight farms potentially at risk of SARA, due to at least one cow per farm spent time with their ruminal pH below 5.75. In total, five farms have reported changing their feeding management by changing the total feed intake, the concentrate/forage ratio or the concentrate intake; one farm changed the time of feeding, another did not change any feed management because no feed other than grass was available and one did not provide a report. The results of these changes were an increase in the mean daily pH for three farms, which was interpreted as a reduction in the risk of SARA.

During the recording period, 7 cows with boluses calved. Data revealed a potential risk of acidosis after calving due to a big drop in pH. Infection has also been seen in the data, represented by an increase in temperature. One or two days after these increases in temperature, farmers reported treating the cows for mastitis.

One particular farm that stood out was Farm B which, over the final three months of the trial, saved a total of £14,647.50. This was due to two ration changes, the first of which was a change in the concentrate/forage ratio in terms of dry matter intake (DMI) from 1.27 to 1.19, with the same total intake. This change resulted in a decrease in feed cost of £0.15/cow/day with a reduced risk of acidosis. The second change was a further reduction in concentrate/forage ratio from 1.19 to 0.95 with an increase of +5kg to the total intake. This change saved the farm £0.60/cow/day and reduced the risk of acidosis in one cow, the rest remained in the safe pH region.

Records in milk for this period didn’t show any decline in milk production or milk composition compared to the records of the year before. In total they saved £14,647.50 in three months by changing the cost of the ration and looking at the pH level of the cows.

Farm E had a different approach. By changing the time when the farmer moved an electric fence from evening to morning, the time a cow spent grazing increased and so did her milk yield. A yield response of 5 more litres per day was recorded for this animal. Although a positive response was seen from the herd, the increased intake did push the cow’s pH down and therefore augmented the risk of SARA, as shown by the data collected by the farmBolus.

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