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K-State professors working on sensor-based system to monitor livestock herds

By Jennifer Newberry


As the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches, work is being done at Kansas State University to monitor and protect food animals on the range. Professors from veterinary medicine, engineering, and computing and information sciences are working to develop a system to monitor the health and activity of individual animals in a herd.

"The primary goals of the project are to develop new technology to increase meat quality by minimizing the impact of disease and to protect human/animal populations by detecting disease early before local herds are mixed with animals in large feedlots," said Steve Warren, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

This system could be especially beneficial for avian influenza, which began in the Far East, said Howard Erickson, professor of physiology. In addition to avian influenza, other animal diseases such as pneumonia, mad cow disease, bacterial infections, lung diseases and respiratory tract diseases also could be detected early.

"Some animal diseases that are potential bioterrorist agents -- anthrax, botulism, hantavirus and West Nile fever -- are zoonotic, which means communicable to humans," Erickson said. "Other animal diseases, such as avian influenza, and foot-and-mouth disease, are high-consequence livestock pathogens that may also affect humans."

Animals often get sick and it may be days before the farmer, rancher or owner notices they are sick, Erickson said. An epidemic could happen in the time between when an animal gets sick and when a veterinarian is called out, Daniel Andresen, associate professor of computing and information science, said.

"In the mean time, more animals get sick and disease can spread than if we detected the disease earlier," he said. "There are major ramifications for containing foot-and-mouth disease, mad cow disease, avian influenza or other epidemics, which may cost hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. We hope through monitoring we can help the farmer detect disease earlier, have fewer animals to treat and positively impact national security."

In addition to the sensors, the group is also looking at ways to monitor animal activity/motion. These devices send data that indicate which direction an animal is moving and how quickly.

"When they're sick, they're less active," Warren said. "A sick animal exhibits a different activity pattern and has a different stance than one that's healthy."

The information gained from the system would benefit the state and federal government, farmers, biologists and other scientists. The government would have the tools to more quickly react to a small disease outbreak. Scientists could study a variety of things, including animal changes, the effect of climate on animal behavior/health or the types of food the animals eat.

Approximately 40 percent of all animal diseases tend to be respiratory tract diseases, Andresen said. Transportation from the ranch to a stockyard creates stress, and when combined with windy trucks and dust, creates change in the animals' environment that suppresses the immune system. Sick animals can be quarantined instead of being loaded onto a semi trailer and taken to a feedlot, Warren said.

Because of the higher cost of instrumentation, only a few animals on a ranch or large feedlot may wear the more complex sensor system, Erickson said. The more simplified system might be worn by more. The group hopes costs would be in the range of $5 to $10 for the simplified system, and $100 for the more complex system. All herd animals will soon be required to have electronic ID tags, and an internal temperature sensor could be added for $2, Andresen said.

This project is part of a study that began in 2003 called "Information Technology Research: An Infrastructure for Veterinary Telemedicine - Proactive Herd Health Management for Disease Prevention from Farm to Market." The National Science Foundation awarded the researchers $899,996 for four years of study, after funding the investigators $107,025 to complete a one-year proof-of-concept system.

The group is at the stage of collecting raw data. They have developed and integrated several sensors and are pleased with their performance.

"One of the reasons it's a big deal, even in a veterinary hospital, is animals aren't typically monitored this closely," Andresen said. "Temperature is taken only four times daily, and we can take it more frequently with the sensors."

Warren said the group has demonstrated this type of monitoring system can be worn by an animal, however packaging issues remain.

"The animals' living environment is not always friendly and the animals do not try to be helpful," he said. "Right now, we're optimizing a wireless link between the animal and an external base station -- have a wireless access point in a barn or on a feed trough. We also need to extend the study and data collection from hours to days and weeks."

Andresen can be reached at 785-532-6350 or dan@cis.ksu.edu; Steven Warren, 785-532-4644, swarren@k-state.edu; Howard Erickson, 785-532-4541, erickson@vet.k-state.edu


Summer 2006