As they become more and more industrialized, modern farms start to look more and more like factories. The modern farmer spends more time working at a computer than performing menial tasks. To guarantee quality and consistency in these conditions, good automatic monitoring systems are essential. One business that understands this is Agricam, based in Linköping, Sweden, which has created an automated dairy cow monitoring system using FLIR thermal imaging cameras.
Mastitis is a serious issue in modern dairy farming, according to Ellinor Eineren, the company’s founder and CEO. “A persistent udder infection in cows is known as mastitis. The most prevalent disease in dairy cattle is this potentially fatal mammary gland infection. If discovered at an early stage, it is very easily treatable. To ensure that there is little to no milk left in the udder for the bacteria that cause the infection to replicate in, the infected cow is typically simply milked more frequently. By doing this, the animal’s natural defense mechanism can get rid of the bacterial invader before Mastitis develops into a clinical condition.”
According to Eineren, diagnosing developing mastitis was relatively simple when using the traditional manual milking methods. “An increase in udder temperature brought on by increased blood flow, a typical indicator of inflammation, can help diagnose this illness. The farmer would be well-versed in recognizing these symptoms from personal experience. This is more difficult today because machines are frequently used to milk cows rather than people.”
In most modern dairy farms, the milking is no longer done by hand, so the farmer does not feel the increased temperature of the udders that signals the onset of Mastitis. “This is a significant issue for the milking sector. Animals with mastitis experience pain and general discomfort, and antibiotics are required to treat the condition. This not only raises the cost of veterinary care. Due to stringent European regulations, milk cannot be consumed until all antibiotic drug residues have been completely eliminated from the animal’s system.”
Mastitis in dairy cows costs European farmers an estimated tens of millions of euros annually, according to various estimates. “I was astounded to learn that the typical dairy farmer currently loses between 20,000 and 60,000 euros annually due to mastitis. That is a sizable amount of cash. Therefore, we set out to develop an automatic early detection system based on thermal imaging technology as a solution to this issue.”
Handheld thermal imaging cameras are used by vets all over the world to spot inflammations in domesticated animals. The use of thermal imaging cameras as a diagnostic tool for inflammation and other health issues in animals, including horses, cows, dogs, and cats, is expanding. “However, a human operator must be present in those circumstances to manually record the images and analyze the thermographic data. I’m not aware of any system that can carry out this task automatically.”
Because of this, Eineren and the business Agricam created a patented system known as CaDDi, short for Cattle Disease Diagnostics. “To check the viability of such a product, we worked with the FLIR products distributor Termisk Systemteknik, based in Linköping. First, in collaboration with veterinarians from the Swedish National Veterinary Institute, we manually captured thermal images of cow udders using a FLIR P660 thermal imaging camera in order to test whether thermal imaging cameras can identify Mastitis.”
The next step, says Eineren, “was to create a system that could do that automatically.” “However, it was simpler said than done. The thermal image’s warm spots don’t always signify inflammation. Animals’ body temperatures vary naturally, and there are numerous minute variations in their thermal patterns. So, to avoid false alarms, we needed sophisticated analysis. We greatly benefited from our partner Termisk Systemteknik’s knowledge in that area.”
The CEO of Termisk Systemteknik, Stefan Sjökvist, claims that the company has more than three decades of experience in all types of image analysis, including the analysis of thermal images. But this particular application remained a difficult challenge because, in order to produce an accurate result, we had to take into account the unique thermal characteristics of each individual animal.
In a dairy farm near Linköping, Sjökvist and his colleagues installed two FLIR A310 thermal imaging cameras in tough waterproof housings at the sides of the milking machine. The FLIR A310 thermal imaging cameras offer precisely the kind of detailed images and thermal data that we need for this application, according to Sjökvist. They have a thermal sensitivity of 50mK and a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels.
There are plans to extend the system to address additional health issues, according to Sjökvist. Even before the animals show any clinical symptoms, the technology should be able to identify a wide range of health problems, such as other forms of inflammation, nerve damage, skeletal problems, or injuries. Eieren concurs. “CaDDi Mastitis is the product we currently sell, but in the future, modules for other illnesses and for animals will be developed. Veterinarians from the Swedish National Veterinary Institute collaborate closely with us to ensure the accuracy of all our current and upcoming modules.”
In the early stages of concept development, we compared the thermal imaging products that are currently on the market, but we quickly discovered that FLIR Systems is the only thermal imaging supplier that offers solutions with the same level of performance and cost effectiveness.