Lame cows detected early

Device: The Reaction Force Detection System helps dairy farmers maintain profits by catching a bovine ailment while it can still be treated.

October 02, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Nine million cows keep American dairy aisles stocked, but all their laboring back and forth to the milking parlor is getting them down.

One in five now has leg or foot pain - a condition called lameness that costs the agricultural industry more than a half-billion dollars annually and can leave the animals unable to produce much milk or even stand.

To keep the udders, and the dairymen, in business, a team of inventors led by a University of Maryland, Baltimore County engineer has built a device that weeds out cows for early treatment. A Wisconsin company plans to start selling the Reaction Force Detection System in the next few months, and eventually, the inventors expect to adapt the device for racehorses, sheep and even maybe lab rats.

"Look at her, sitting there like an old lady," said Uri Tasch, the engineer, pointing to a picture of a cow that could not get up. "She's obviously lame. Everyone can see that. We want to detect the problem much before then."

Five years ago, Tasch, who had never before mixed his fondness for animals with his engineering work, began building a prototype after he was approached by animal welfare professionals in the University System of Maryland.

The group developing the prototype included Tasch, a mechanical engineer; Robert Dyer, a former Maryland veterinarian now at the University of Delaware; Benny Erez, a research coordinator at Maryland's agriculture experiment station; Mark Varner, a university animal science specialist; and Alan Lefcourt, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A student and a statistician were among others contributing.

The device they created with $25,000 from the experiment station and $120,000 from the Agriculture Department looks like a giant scale. Beneath it are load cells that measure, not weight, but the force from each leg on each side of the scale as the cow walks over it on the way from the milking parlor.

Data to a computer

Data on where and how hard the cow steps are fed to a computer that uses Tasch's software to determine if the animal is favoring a leg. Identification tags tell the computer which cow is walking.

The computer awards a numerical score from one to five for each leg that can be recorded several times a day, depending on the milking schedule.

Lame cows, which rate between one and two, can be automatically segregated from the herd by electronic gates.

Traditionally, farmers or veterinarians detected lameness simply by inspecting each animal's feet.

Two years ago, the technology caught the attention of several companies that make farm equipment such as robotic milkers.

As herds have grown larger and farmers have grown more distant from each animal, the demand for equipment to milk and care for cows has grown, too.

The companies submitted proposals to buy the technology, and a license was awarded to Bou-Matic LLC, a Madison, Wis.-based company that built a machine from stainless steel and plans to begin installing it on farms in coming months.

`Very prevalent'

"Lameness is very prevalent on dairy farms," said Bill Nelson, manager of Bou-Matic's dairy technology group.

"We'd been looking for ideas on how to diagnose it. We heard about the technology developed at the University of Maryland and felt that it was very sound technology and something we wanted to pursue."

The company declined to say how much the device will cost or how much it will pay in fees and royalties to the university.

The money is to be split among UM's Baltimore County and College Park campuses and several of the inventors, including Tasch, for the next 20 years.

Inventions from universities do not always attract attention from commercial manufacturers.

Only about five of 25 inventions at UMBC are licensed to a company each year, and maybe two or three of those become commercial products, according to Stephen Auvil of the Baltimore County campus office of technology development.

But the lameness-detection apparatus has great potential, its backers believe, because the problem costs the industry an estimated $570 million a year in lost productivity and medical expenses.

That's an added burden at a time when milk is garnering its lowest price in a quarter-century, according to the National Farmers Union.

Lameness is considered one of the top three problems on the dairy farm, after bacteria and reproductive troubles.

Each case generally costs between $300 and $400 to cure.

Lameness usually affects the hind feet and can be caused by a number of factors including rough surfaces, damp conditions, diet and genetics. Sometimes it causes open sores.

The cure often is relatively easy: a foot bath, a good scrubbing and perhaps a hoof trim.

Left untreated, the problem can become incurable and require the slaughter of the animal.

Early detection critical

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