Farm Ireland

Tuesday 17 July 2018

Scanning dairy's way forward

ADVANCED: Dr Dan Ryan has spent almost five years developing technology that can automatically judge the age a foetus from just day 20 of a pregnancy
ADVANCED: Dr Dan Ryan has spent almost five years developing technology that can automatically judge the age a foetus from just day 20 of a pregnancy
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Here's an interesting observation from a small study of beef herds. 80pc of the recorded birth-dates were wrong, badly wrong. In other words, out by more than a week, and in some cases up to three months.

Another potentially powerful fact – cows with an average SCC of 550,000 have a pregnancy rate that is 17pc lower than cows with a SCC of 230,000, even when under the same management regimes.

The first point highlights the level of inaccuracy that is inherent in the data that the likes of the ICBF relies on to devise breeding values for breeds and individual bulls.

The second shows that seemingly unrelated health issues have a lot more impact on the likelihood of your cows going in-calf than we like to think.

They are just two of the many issues that bovine reproductive expert Dr Dan Ryan believes he can fix with the latest technology that he is rolling out across the country in the coming weeks.

For the last five years, Dr Ryan has spent approximately €2.5m on developing technology that can automatically judge the age a foetus from just day 20 of a pregnancy.

Much of the money was spent on recruiting full-time software engineers such as Dr Tarik Choudhury and Dr John Mallon, although additional support was also received from Enterprise Ireland's development advisor, Martin Fleming and DCU's Professor Paul Whelan.


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"We have used over 300,000 images of pregnancies at various stages that allow software to calculate the age of the pregnancy by the size of the foetus. We reckon it is accurate to within plus or minus two days," explained Dr Ryan.

He envisages this technology being used by vets who would otherwise not have the level of experience required to date pregnancies and interpret the subtleties of scans of wombs.

"Up to now, vets have been sidelined by scanners in the reproductive programmes being implemented at farm level," said Dr Ryan.

"But that's all wrong, because the vet has a huge role to play by bringing together the information from the scans and information about the general health of the herd in terms of optimising future breeding programmes."

The software can work on any scanning machine and will cost close to €2,000 a year to licence, along with another 20c per scan. However, Dr Ryan insisted that users would also be required to undergo intensive training days.

The system is already up and running on a 2,000 cow herd in Belarus, where a team of vets are operating the equipment.

The management there are aiming to brand their milk as 'Opti-milk' that has been produced from cows in optimum health.

Dr Ryan also believes the technology has a big role to play concerning the wider issue of herd health.

"There are things that we would be looking out for in the womb which I call biomarkers.

"These basically show if the animal has suffered any health challenges over the last 12 months, while at the same time providing pointers as to what is the likelihood of the animal going in calf over the next six months," he said.

This information will be of most value to farmers that are looking to expensive sexed or rare semen to get their cows in calf.

However, Dr Ryan also believes that both the Department of Agriculture and industry leaders should be backing the use of this technology to ensure that the flow of information from the likes of the Beef Data Programme is much more accurate.

"Not only would it ultimately benefit farmers who rely on good data to make the right breeding choices, but it would also set Ireland light years ahead of its competitors in terms of having an incontrovertible digital paper trail attached to each animal," he said.


The company behind the technology, CowsDNA, has gained permission from the ICBF to access electronic passports for every animal that they scan.

As a result, CowsDNA can attach every scan and the information about projected calving dates to the passport.

"We could also attach condition scores or locomotion scores at the same time.

"This could have massive uses for international food companies that want full traceability on the product that they are buying," Dr Ryan said.

"Already we see that the likes of Asda and Sainsburys are taking a lot more interest in what is happening inside the farm gate.

"I think this is only the start of this trend," he added.

Indo Farming