State-of-the-art sensors to monitor/manage dairy calf birth and calf health

  • John F Mee Teagasc
Keywords: Prediction; Automatic feeder; Calving; Calf diarrhoea; Respiratory disease


The two most hazardous periods in the life of a dairy animal are birth and the pre-weaning period. Birth presents the highest risk of mortality and the pre-weaning period presents the highest risk of morbidity for the dairy calf. Hence, it is the breeder’s responsibility to ensure calves transition successfully through these two high risk periods. Traditionally this was accomplished by good breeder stockmanship. However, as dairy herd sizes increase and skilled labour becomes less available, alternative approaches to protecting good calf health and welfare are required. One approach under active research currently is to utilise modern technologies to assist the breeder in monitoring and managing calf health from birth to weaning. After years of developments in precision livestock farming (PLF) technologies for dairy cows, now PLF technologies are increasingly being adapted and validated for dairy calves. The international state-of-the-art in three current active areas of research are reviewed here; prediction of calf birth, prediction of neonatal calf diarrhoea (NCD) and prediction of calf respiratory disease (CRD) through use of ‘on cow/calf’, ‘in cow/calf’ or ‘off cow/calf’ sensors. The focus of commercially available birth prediction devices is across monitoring dam activity, body temperature, tail elevation and foetal expulsion. The merits and demerits of each approach is discussed and summarised. For both calf diarrhoea and respiratory disease while there are studies on measurement of calf activity and physiological parameters, the focus currently is on utilising feeding/drinking behaviour data from automatic feeders. To date much of the output from this research has retrospectively associated parameters with subsequent ill-health but has not prospectively predicted ill-health. Major future challenges for all PLF calf technologies include validation of existing commercial devices, integration of information across different devices and development of economical, real-time, decision support forecasting tools for commercial dairy breeders. Thus, while multi-technology approaches show better results than single techniques, they are also less economical currently. Given that research on dairy calf PLF lags behind dairy cow PLF research, these early technology adaptation problems are to be expected; next generation calf-specific PLF technologies may resolve these issues and make such devices mainstream for dairy breeders.