- In an effort to improve the well-being of its cows, U.K.’s largest dairy brand Arla will begin a trial of a new 3D imagery system called Herdvision, reported FoodBev Media.
- Developed in collaboration with the Centre for Machine Vision in the Bristol Robotics Lab at the University of the West of England and AgsenZe, the artificial intelligence system is designed to identify changes in the physical well-being, mobility and weight of dairy cows before they are detected by the human eye.
- Part of the challenge with this scanner is implementing it in a manner in which the cows are unaware of its presence. Studies have shown that cows behave differently if they believe that they are being watched.
Animal welfare has become a frequent topic of discussion in the food industry because where food comes from matters as much as what is actually in it. As consumers look for sustainable products and better-for-you ingredients, they also are searching for companies that focus on the welfare of their animals. A survey from Technomic and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found 77% of consumers are concerned about animal welfare as it applies to their food. It also found that more than 70% of retailers that stock products with humane claims report sales increases.
At the same time, there are limited regulations surrounding animal welfare. Last year, the U.S. Agriculture Department officially withdrew the organic livestock and poultry practices rule that would have set animal welfare standards in organic agriculture. Nevertheless, consumer demand is driving independent retailers to take an introspective view of operations and publicly commit to better standards for animals. Arla’s new technology might put the company at the front of the herd.
Arla's Herdvision technology scanner is intended to be an unobtrusive set of eyes to monitor individual cows. The system will track individual animals and assess any changes in a cow’s own health record. This individualized plan is part of Arla’s evidence-based push to get the maximum amount of productivity out of its dairies. After all, healthy cows produce better milk, which is better for the company.
Daily welfare monitoring comes at a time when U.S.-based Fairlife, which is jointly owned by Coca-Cola and Select Milk Producers, is under scrutiny for allegations of fraud and deceptive marketing after undercover videos of animal abuse taken at a Fairlife supplier dairy in Indiana were released by an animal welfare group.
In recent years, the low-margin dairy industry has been hit by slowing milk demand, growing popularity of plant-based options and increased consumption of alternative beverages such as tea, juice, energy drinks and water. The prudent thing for the industry is to do what it can to boost consumer satisfaction.
In fact, Arla is so laser-focused on maximizing efficiencies that it recently invested in an artifical intelligence forecasting tool that helps predict the amount of milk its 1.5 million cows will produce in the coming months.
In such a competitive industry, technology could mean the difference between a balance sheet in the black or one in the red. With the same reality facing dairy producers in the U.S. as in the U.K., it wouldn’t be surprising to see more animal welfare technology picked up in America. Of course, Arla’s new gear is still in a trial phase and hasn’t been rolled out to all its dairies. Still, if it's successful it could be the latest technology to improve animal welfare in the U.S.
Already in 2017, Tyson Foods rolled out a remote video auditing system in 33 poultry plants and introduced a pilot project for controlled atmosphere stunning at two of its poultry facilities. More recently, McDonald’s and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research launched SMART Broiler, an initiative that will award companies $4 million for research to develop and commercialize automated animal welfare monitoring tools.
Improving animal welfare would not only benefit dairy companies by boosting efficiencies, but it may be a tool they could use to attract consumers who have shunned dairy products in favor of other alternatives.