AS dairy farmers continue to lose billions of euros per year to udder infections a Canadian goat farmer has developed a new system of detection that is proving invaluable in the fight against disease.
Text and pictures: Chris McCullough
Small farms are the most susceptible to udder infection as they usually have little access to the technology that can help detect disease. Canadian goat farmer Cory Spencer developed a scanner at his The Happy Goat Cheese Company, in the Cowichan Valley, that can detect the early stages of udder infections in less than one second.
After experiencing problems with mastitis in his own goats, Cory developed the scanner and formed EIO Diagnostics with co-founder Tamara Leigh and Damir Wallener who is the chief executive.
The tool developed by the EIO Diagnostics team scans udders in the parlour or yard, either via a mounted scanner in robotic milking systems or a handheld device, and relays the images to a screen where infections can be identified easier.
In order to be a benefit to all dairy farmers of any size, and who farm cows or goats, EIO Diagnostics say its system is not only very accurate but also affordable.
After putting the scanner into trials on a number of farms the team from the company travelled to Namibia and Kenya in Africa to test the scanner in African conditions, allowing them to calibrate it for more challenging climates.
Company co-founder Tamara Leigh says the trip to Africa helped them achieve two major goals.
Tamara said: “The trip to Namibia and Kenya had two major goals for us. First, we wanted to test the device under conditions that we weren’t going to find at home.
“In Namibia, we partnered with Dr Vetja Haakuria, associate dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Namibia, where students study veterinary pharmacy as part of their degree.
“With his help, we tested in different environments from the very modern milking parlour Namib Dairy’s SuperFarm in Mariental, to trials on meat goats on remote communal farms in the Erongo region.
“This helped us calibrate for the different conditions, including working in direct sunlight and with significant heat. We were really happy with the way that the tool performed under some fairly rugged conditions, and the results have helped us refine our software.”
The second goal of the African visit was to find out more about dairying in Kenya and to measure how the scanner could improve productivity on farms there.
Tamara added: “Our time in Kenya was focused on deepening our understanding of the dairy industry there, and figuring out how our device can best help address the challenges they face, particularly with milk quality and production.
“We visited six farms in four days, and met with some really forward-looking organisations who are working with dairy farmers. One of the companies, Sidai, is working to provide high quality agricultural supplies and veterinary extension services to small and mid-sized farms with an emphasis on remote and under-served areas of the country.
“There was a lot of interest in our tool and approach, and we came away with commitments from four really solid partners for a pilot project later this year.
“The prospects for EIO and our device in Africa are excellent. This market is under-served by current diagnostic tools, and there is nothing else out there that can compete on the speed, accuracy and affordability of what we are bringing to market.
“There are over a million smallholder farmers producing milk in Kenya. We aren’t going to put a device in the hands of every farmer, but working with partners, we believe we can make a significant difference in the management of mastitis in this part of the world.
“Our time in Africa was great from both a product and business development perspective, and the momentum is building at home,” she added.
EIO uses a technique known as multispectral imaging which detects udder abnormalities as they form. Animals that are affected by harmful pathogens, even at somatic cell count (SCC) levels which are generally considered subclinical, can then be identified by farmers.
Being able to identify a Staphylococcus aureus infection, even when a standard SCC test is showing levels below 200,000 celles/ml, gives farmers an effective tool for increasing herd health and minimising production losses.
The handheld device, which is about the size and shape of a small tablet, can tell the health of an udder in less than one second.
Used in bigger automated milking parlours the mounted device identifies and monitors cows as they enter the milking stall or robot. It integrates with DeLaval VMS or Lely Astronaut robotic milkers and can also be integrated with automated feeders, leveraging existing animal identification systems.
Tamara added: “We are currently in the process of reworking the physical design of the device, and fine-tuning the software.
“Our team is growing quickly, and we have added a Chief Science Officer, Dr Mariah Wallener, who is working with academic partners on scientific validation studies. We’ll be launching the first study with the University of British Columbia in the next few weeks.
“The next version of the tool will be ready for deployment at a number of demonstration sites. Over the next three to six months, we will have devices in several large-scale dairies in California and the pilot project in Kenya. We are well on our way to having a commercially available product in barns within the year,” she added.
EIO say it prices the system on a service model rather than individual hardware sales and each system will differ on the number of scanners required.
Company CEO Damir Wallener said: “When it comes to pricing, it very much depends on the usage model and milking parlour style. For the same size herd, a rotary milking platform needs fewer devices than, for example, a double 12.
“From the dairy’s perspective, though, it all works out the same, as EIO prices on a service model rather than a hardware sales model.
“EIO manages all the hardware, software, updates and maintenance, for a fixed price, with no surprises. For goat dairies, the pricing is $3 (€2.54) per month, per goat.
“For cows, it is $5 (€4.24) per month, per cow. From the farm’s perspective, by reducing per-animal lab tests, or saving just one bulk tank from being dumped, the service pays for itself very quickly,” he said.
Once the device visualises an udder, it takes a number of measurements from various parts of the spectrum. These are run through a complex mathematical model, generating a pass or fail signal.
“This takes less than a second,” said Damir. “The measurements are also pushed to EIO’s software cloud, where they are combined with all the other imaging done at all the other barns.
“Over time, improved models are pushed back down to the devices, allowing every farm to learn from what is happening on every other farm.
“The system can send emails, text messages, and it can use messaging apps like Slack or update a cloud-based dashboard. Basically, any internet-dependent communication channel is either supported, or easy for us to add,” he said.