New research will help farmers predict health issues in cattle long before you can

Artificial intelligence crunches medical data so well, it can reliably predict if someone will get pancreatic cancer three years before a typical diagnosis, according to recent amazing headlines. So why not put these machine minds to work predicting and preventing bovine diseases in dairy barns, too?

Researchers with McGill University and the Université du Québec à Montréal are striving to do exactly that with their ‘Animal Welfare and Artificial Intelligence’ (WELL-E) initiative.  Work is already underway at two undisclosed pilot dairy farms, one in Eastern Ontario and one in Quebec,  although they say this will “quickly” expand to a network of over 100 farms across both provinces.

WELL-E’s artificial intelligence will consume live camera video feeds and other electronic-sensor data from inside the barns, including pedometers (measuring movement) worn by the cattle. Modern dairy barns are loaded with internet-enabled devices, machinery and robots that create tons of data points. Historical production data collected by Lactanet will also go into the mix. In the end, the artificial mind will spot correlations that indicate looming cattle health problems long before a human could, allowing for early intervention and prevention.

Heading off lameness in cattle is an early focus of the research. “Using our methods, we hope to be able to identify minute changes in gait, allowing us to identify and treat problems before the onset of visible symptoms,” WELL-E research chair co-holder Professor Elsa Vasseur told Farmers Forum.

Long-term, the researchers hope the technology can be used to tackle an unlimited number of health issues in cattle.

“First, it will be used to predict indicators of welfare, longevity, and profitability in dairy cows. The use of remote sensing and AI will enhance our ability to detect changes in their welfare and longevity before the onset of visible outcomes,” Vasseur, an associate professor in the Department of Animal Science at McGill’s Macdonald campus, said.

“Second, work performed ..will inform dairy producers’ day-to-day decisions to further improve cow welfare while allowing them to identify animals more likely to succeed in the long-term  and on which efforts are better invested,” added Vasseur.

The initiative was recently launched with $5-million from industry and government sources, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

“We are excited to support this research initiative as it will serve as the genesis for future practices and tools that further advance our industry-wide animal care objectives,” Dairy Farmers of Canada President Pierre Lampron said.

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