Friday, July 8, 2022

Weighty problem cracked

Dr Tim Molteno has won his beer.

At the end of 2011 the director of electronics in the University of Otago Physics Department bet the makers of Tru-Test he could make their scales weigh cattle half a second faster than the three to five seconds it took.

A student spent last summer working full-time on the project and another took over after that. A new algorithm was figured out and Molteno flew to Auckland to drink his beer on October 17.

“We’re a university, so we’re not trying to make products for a marketplace. We’re trying to develop new technologies which can be used, so we want a good problem we can tackle and this is certainly one,” Molteno said.

The project isn’t over yet. In partnership with Tru-Test, $3.9 million has been secured through a government-targeted research fund in agriculture for a five-year research study on how to weigh animals better.

“We want to weigh the cattle as they walk on the platform, instead of having to have someone there to stop the animal and not let any other animals on it while it is being weighed,” Molteno said.

“We’re thinking of designing some sort of calming measures to have before they step on to the scales.”

Helping him out with cattle behaviour will be local farmers, he hopes – Molteno admits even being on the other side of the fence to a herd of cows makes him nervous.

“We’ve actually been using people in the department to make sure the scales worked faster, which is a little bit different. Usually experiments are done on animals before the research is tried on humans, not the other way around,” he said.

His idea is to have the new scales set up in a place where cattle normally walk, such as a gateway or a culvert.  

“As the cow walks over it, it’s weighed and the cow identified using its electronic identification (EID) tag and the information sent to the owner’s computer.”

The scales would be ableto identify an incorrect reading, such as when more than one animal had its feet on the platform.

“The really hard thing, which we are aiming to do, is to be able to identify lameness. I didn’t realise how much production farmers lost due to lameness, so we really want to be able to do something about that,” Molteno said.

Also on his radar are lambs.  

“Any farming system where animal weight gain is important could benefit. Lambs have to be up to weight to send to the works but yarding and weighing them individually, as it’s done now, actually stresses the animal and stops it putting on weight. If we could weigh them in the paddock unattended then that would be a real advantage to farmers.”

Physics students at the university were keen to be involved in the project, he said.

“It’s a real-life project. We’re not dealing with sub-atomic particles, something they can’t see. They’re lining up to be involved, which is great. They feel like they are making a difference. One day they could be driving past a paddock and see cattle walking over the scales they helped design.”

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