Traditionally, milk, blood and urine samples have been used to monitor dairy cows under field conditions. Exhaled air from the dairy cow is mainly used for monitoring methane emissions, with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the long term. Breath, which consists of a complex mixture of molecules, can also provide valuable insights into the status of the individual cow.
Dairy farming faces the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and using resources as efficiently as possible. An important step towards these goals is the ability to monitor cows individually, even if they are kept in a herd. Cows can be managed individually only if the amount of the feed they consume, the methane they emit through their breath, the urine and manure they excrete and the milk they produce are known.
In the project ‘Sustainable dairy farming: integration of ecology and technology’ (financed by TKI Agro & Food, IMEC/OnePlanet, and Melkveefonds), a new barn system is being developed, in which data are collected from individual animals on feed intake, methane emissions, excretion of manure and urine, and milk production, using sensors and robots,. These data will be processed in a decision support tool to optimize management of the individual cow, resulting in reduced emissions and improved resource efficiency.
The use of breath
Breath analysis is also an emerging field in human medicine. In addition to the well-known breath alcohol testing, breath composition has already been used in the clinical routine for the prediction of childhood asthma through the measurement of nitric oxide concentrations. The advantage of breath analysis is the non-invasive sampling that can be performed regularly or even continuously. Our team explores the use of breath to monitor health and production status in individual dairy cows.
An extensive literature review has been carried out, mapping various metabolic, stress and reproductive events and their associated potential biomarkers in breath. We found opportunities in monitoring feed efficiency and ketosis, among others. We also started collecting a large dataset, including breath measurements from the GreenFeed systems installed on Dairy Campus. Current challenges include searching for the most suitable sensors and sampling techniques. In parallel, we will continue to search for further biomarkers of various relevant cow disorders.
By matching the domain knowledge about dairy cattle with technology, we will demonstrate the potential of breath in improving sustainability, profitability, and animal welfare, through advanced individual monitoring of dairy cows.