Flashmate Heat Detection

March 2016

A new tool for easy detection of cows coming into heat designed by FarmShed Labs

The FlashMate heat detection device was developed by Fraser Smith and Matt Yallop, who are partners in FarmShed Labs Company, and it is marketed by Gallagher Group. It is a single-use, low-cost, disposable electronic device which monitors cow riding activity and means dairy and beef cattle owners and their staff members are able to pick up cow standing heat periods with high accuracy, enabling tighter calving periods, more days in milk, fewer empties and more AB replacements. FlashMate is being trialled by Southland dairy farmer Geoff Clark during the mating period early November until Christmas.

DairyNZ has identified efficient detection of cow heats as the largest single economically important and controllable event in the farming calendar. Outcomes of breeding are the basis of profitability currently tied to skill, experience and reliance on visual aids for heat detection.

Smith and Yallop have worked together since 2004 and in 2012 Matt visited Iceland and saw the influence of technology on that country’s fishing industry. They resolved to concentrate on New Zealand’s leading industry, the dairy industry, to solve some of the challenges to extend New Zealand’s competitive advantage.

With a background in commercialisation of intellectual property with agri-tech specialisation and start-ups and venture funding, they had the requisite skills and motivation. They are a bridge between the innovation community and the farming community.

FlashMate incorporates modern technology in a challenging environment of rain, dirt, hair and heavy cow contacts. The devices pick up contact similar to the touch screen of a phone. A computer chip aboard each device is running smart algorithms to compare patterns of cow-to-cow contact being measured with known heat patterns to alert for heat. A huge plus is that the devices automatically activate as they are removed from the bag so there is no need to sit and individually turn on every device. As soon as the bag is ripped open, the devices are on. They can be applied one-handed in the farm dairy. The sheets of 12 devices and a lanyard worn around the neck enables the operator to carry up to 36 devices at once down the line-up of cows.

Natural solutions for dealing with high shear force environments were investigated, examples inspired by nature being the holdfast of bull kelp and the shape of limpets in rock pools around the surf zone. The result is a unique patented innovation; a dome with far superior retention as a system for anchoring to animal hair over the 6 week mating season.

Existing visual aid technologies for mating detection require the force of the animals riding each other to set them off. FlashMate measures `presence’ of another animal utilising sensing technology similar to that of a touchscreen. That means the device can be shifted away from the high shear force environment. FlashMate does not require mechanical force to register the presence of another animal.

Cows must be brushed in the application area three days before FlashMate application to remove hair and other loose material. Packs have to be opened and the units automatically activated, indicated by short flashes of red, before use.

With the spray can, glue is applied to the required site on the cow, a handwidth below the backbone, behind the hips and forward of the pin bones. Glue is left a few minutes to become tacky. Each unit is peeled and stuck to the cow with finger force. It requires 6 hours after application to become ready for its purpose.

All devices have to be checked every two weeks during mating and re-glued, simply by lifting each device, spraying underneath the cow and allowing to tack up before re-affixing.

FlashMate is marketed nationwide by Gallagher Group. FSL sees Gallagher as a credible channel into the market and an alternative to duplicating the resources that Gallagaher already have. It’s a wiwn/win and the industry sees the solution faster.

One FlashMate unit is glued to the right upper flank of the cow above the hip bone and slightly lower than the normal tail painting zone. Trials have established the best place for application and FlashMate flashes red for 26 hours after the right activity pattern (riding by other cows) is detected. Once AB is done, if the same cow does not come back into heat within 25 days, FlashMate will flash green to indicate possible conception. If the cow returns to heat the unit will flash red again.

The unit detects cow riding activity, much of which occurs at night. FlashMate provides smarter detection, looking for patterns (length, time, frequency) rather than what could be a single event.

Southland dairy farmer Geoff Clark used FlashMate heat detectors for the 2015 mating, as supplied by Farmshed Labs as an R&D site. He is part of the trial process for FlashMate and did not have to buy the units. The farm is 535ha with a milking platform of 350ha, now milking 840 Friesian, Friesian-cross cows. In its seventh season of dairying, the farm is not a typical dairy farm because it is set amongst rolling Hokonui hills. Target milk production is 400kg/cow, and last year the achievement was 395kg. It is an all-grass system with an ability for some in-shed feeding in the shoulders of the season when the payout allows. Clark grows turnips, choumollier, triticale, fodder beet, swedes and kale crops.

The mating programme began with the heifers on November 1, tail painted only, followed by cows on Nov 7, which were tail painted and FlashMates applied. FlashMates were read on Nov 8 and every day thereafter. Clark immediately observed cows without obvious cycling and no tail paint indication but which had red flashing lights as signs of the right heat activity pattern for AI.

This year is a trial of the financial benefits of being able to pick cows in heat that would not normally be identified. Another benefit is the ability to share heat detection around all farm staff rather than being the responsibility of one person so experienced staff can have time off during mating. All red flashing cows are detained after the morning milking for AI that day.

Clark noted a strong correlation between tail-paint indications and FlashMate indications, as to be expected. However there have been cows with tail-paint disturbance and no red flashing lights, suggesting that mounting activity has not been long enough. Usually the FlashMate would be flashing the next day.

Current industry average detection efficiency has actually fallen in the past decade with the major cause cited as increasing herd sizes and higher use of low skilled labour. The industry acknowledges that oestrus detection is the most controllable activity in the dairy calendar where improving results directly increases farm profit.

DairyNZ calculated the value to the NZ industry for each 15% increase in heat detection conservatively at $300m annually. Improving the 6-week in-calf rate from the current industry average of 64% to the industry target of 78% on the average 400-head farm increases farm gate profit by $28,000 (http://www.6weeks.co.nz/#stats-facts). Large farms of over 750 head which make up 11% of NZ dairy farms will gain significantly by moving from the national average in-calf rate to the industry target and that represents significant value to New Zealand without further environmental or financial inputs.

The current retail cost of FlashMate is $8.65 per unit, plus GST. They come in packs of 24 and 96, both including cans of spray glue.

Fifty cows successfully AB’d 21 days earlier than normal (one menstrual cycle) would result in 1000 extra days milk at 2kg/cow milksolids, at $5/kg, giving $10,000 gross less the costs of FlashMate.