QR codes on milk cartons to offer a window into animal health and welfare

New technology promises a revolutionary way for consumers to access farm animal welfare data. By Daniel Quiceno M via Unsplash

QR codes on milk cartons can be used to provide consumers with detailed information about the care and welfare of farm animals raised as livestock.

A simple QR code printed on the packaging could mean that a carton of milk could one day provide a window into the health and well-being of the cows that produce it. This will allow consumers to trace their milk back to the farm of origin and access data on the welfare of the cows on that particular day.

Thanks to electronic monitoring tools known as Precision Livestock Farming (PLF), this level of detail can be made available to consumers. The technology is already on the market, but its potential has not yet been realized.

The ClearFarm project advances the use of PLF technology to create a more sensitive, continuous and comprehensive way of understanding animal welfare. It brings together producers, regulators, politicians and consumers from six countries.

Focusing on the pig and dairy animalEurope’s dominant livestock industry, ClearFarm has partnered with a number of technology companies to create a new software platform that will take full advantage of PLF’s capabilities to monitor animal welfare throughout its life.

Caring for a cow

“Until now, animal welfare certification schemes have been based on a one-off visit to the farm, maybe once or twice a year, so the information is quite limited,” said Dr Paul Llonch, head of the ClearFarm technical project at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona. (UAB).

“ClearFarm will be the first platform to provide real-time, non-stop animal welfare information. Consumers and producers will be able to view information about every single animal on the farm every day of the year.”

Wearable sensors will continuously collect information, including activity, diet and health data, allowing farmers to monitor their animals when they cannot be with them. Farmers can identify health and welfare issues early and take appropriate action.

In addition to a continuous flow of information, ClearFarm will integrate many different recognized “domains” of animal welfare – health, nutrition, comfort, emotional state and natural behavior. It will bring it all together to provide what Llonch describes as “an unprecedented, comprehensive picture of animal welfare”.

Llonch is one of eight researchers working on the ClearFarm project at UAB, returning to the institution where he earned his first veterinary degree. The welfare and behavior of farm animals is his lifelong passion.

Llonch does not only monitor traditional aspects of animal welfare. As the ClearFarm project develops, it aims to use the latest ideas to improve all aspects of animal welfare on the farm.

Pigs play

The ClearFarm Consortium is already studying the possibilities of “gaming” for pigs, as well as behavior around feeding. Extensive research has highlighted that play for piglets — running, jumping and interacting with pen pals — is important to their development, and the team strongly believes it has a place in welfare monitoring.

“When we installed sensors with microphones in pig pens to monitor coughs and detect respiratory problems, the farmer was skeptical,” Llonch said. “By the end of the trial, he wanted to leave them.”

And it’s not just pigs and dairy cows that benefit from PLF technology, but small farm animals as well. Sheep and goats account for 30% of all livestock raised in Europe, but the sector is often seen as the poor relative when it comes to investment and technology.

Led by Dr Claire Morgan-Davies of SRUC (Scottish Rural College), the TechCare project is working with industry partners, universities, research institutes and farmers in nine countries to explore the benefits for the PLF sector and ensure it is not left behind.

“Producers are very pleased that research and innovation funding has been allocated to their sector and that these technologies can be applied to benefit their animals,” said Morgan-Davies, who has extensive experience in agricultural research.

“As far as consumers are concerned, we hope that going forward we will be able to identify farms that are involved in this level of monitoring, and that this will provide reassurance to animal welfare and quality of life.”

Goat geography

Morgan-Davies believes that many of the challenges for sheep and goat welfare in Scotland and Europe – including disease, feed supply, risk of predation and long-distance transport to slaughter – arise from constraints imposed by harsh climatic and geographical conditions. in which they are often raised. PLF can help improve welfare management and mitigate the impact of these welfare risks for the benefit of sheep and goats worldwide.

TechCare is currently gathering information on existing PLF technologies potentially suitable for sheep and goat farming, the scale of which was a surprise to Morgan-Davies. While they may not have been formally tested in the sector, the potential is there and she believes the industry is slowing down, starting to realize it’s worth investing in.

“The project inspires sheep and goat farmers to believe that new technologies can be successfully applied in their sector for the benefit of their animals,” Morgan-Davies said.

TechCare will develop simple warning systems suitable for the diverse and often traditional nature of sheep and goat farming in Europe. Wearable technology can be added to the identification ear tags already in use to alert farmers via an app to changes in their animals’ behavior, weight loss or failure to gain weight, indicating a potential welfare issue.

Welfare monitoring

Morgan-Davies is optimistic that once farmers see the benefits of simple ear tag monitoring, they may be motivated to invest in more sophisticated systems such as GPS collars. “I believe investment in the technology will lead to an appreciation of its wider role in monitoring not only the welfare of individual animals, but also farm-level performance as well as environmental impact.”

It is also important for ClearFarm, which uses PLF technology to assess environmental impacts, such as the amount of food and water consumed by animals, and assess carbon footprint and economic profitability alongside welfare.

Dr. Llonch hopes that future research will lead to new animal measurement tools to continue to expand the ClearFarm platform and the potential of PLF technology to improve animal care.

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Citation: QR codes on milk cartons to offer a window into animal health and welfare (2022, November 21) Retrieved November 21, 2022, from cartons-window-livestock.html

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