Sheep farming is perhaps not the most obvious place you would look for evidence of the latest technologies, but there are some surprisingly novel applications coming on stream in recent years. Recently, for instance, I covered an AI system developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge that monitors the facial expressions of sheep to test for signs of pain and distress. They believe their system could be used to improve sheep welfare, and could also be applied to other animals.
The system detects distinct parts of the sheep’s face, before comparing what it sees with standardized measurement tools used by vets to diagnose pain. As with so many AI based tools, the key is to provide early diagnoses to help with effective treatment, whether it’s of foot rot, mastitis or one of many other conditions sheep often suffer with.
Or you’ve got the wearable device that’s been developed by researchers at the University of Nottingham to automatically detect lameness in sheep.
Lameness is a significant problem for sheep farmers, and is believed to cost the industry around £80 million per year. It’s a problem that afflicts over 90% of sheep farmers, with footrot the most common cause. It’s treatable if spotted early enough, whilst this can also help to prevent the problem spreading throughout the flock.
Spotting it is not particularly easy however, as sheep have evolved to mask signs of lameness so as not to alert potential predators to their vulnerability. It’s made visual inspection the only reliable means of detecting the condition.
The system was developed in partnership with agricultural software developer Farm Wizard and tech giant Intel.
“Our new system is a smart device – a wearable technology that we hope will be a game-changing investment for sheep farmers and a first for the industry. It consists of a sensing device worn on a sheep’s ear tag that gathers accelerometer and gyroscope data effectively tracking the animal’s behaviour and movement, as well as its gait. The algorithms we have developed are used to create different alerts for farmers. So far they have provided high accuracy in predicting various behaviours of the sheep, including differentiating lameness,” the researchers say.
The device utilizes edge processing, thus making the battery life considerably longer than might otherwise be the case. The researchers are validating their results in a larger trial and hope to then make the technology more widely available.
With just 20% of farmers able to spot lameness early enough to render treatment effective both at returning the sheep to good health and also stopping it spreading throughout the herd, it’s a technology that cannot come soon enough.