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Acoustic Sensors Revolutionising Nitrogen Control in New Zealand 

Image credits: AgResearch
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Researchers at AgResearch have developed acoustic urine sensors to address the issue of nitrogen loss from cattle urine. This loss contributes to water quality problems and leads to emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.

According to a statement from the institute, the device is affixed to the rear leg of dairy cattle, allowing for the recording and identification of distinct sound patterns during “urination events,” which involve aspects like timing and volume. The data collected from these recordings is then analysed using technologies that include machine learning.

Image credits: AgResearch

The sensors are lightweight, user-friendly, and cost-effective. They can be easily scaled up without the need for substantial capital investment in farm infrastructure, and their implementation has minimal impact on daily farm management practices.

On average, dairy cows urinate 10-12 times per day, with an average urination volume of two litres per event and an average equivalent urinary nitrogen application rate estimated to be approximately 600 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare.

Brendon Welten, a senior scientist explained that AgResearch research has shown that the nitrogen load of an individual urination event is closely connected with daily urination frequency, the time of day, and the volume of the event.

The frequency of urination and the volume per event have a direct impact on the nitrogen deposition in urine patches on pasture. Consequently, cows that urinate more frequently per day, coupled with a lower volume per urination event, tend to excrete lesser amounts of nitrogen per event, and therefore, present a lower risk to the environment.

Considering this research, AgResearch has pioneered the concept of an environmental nitrogen herd test to identify and manage cows based on their urinary-nitrogen loss potential, providing a targeted approach to mitigating environmental impact.

The concept is similar to routine herd testing for milk quality and production. A service provider deploys urine sensor technology on a dairy farm to provide an accurate estimate of an individual cow’s urination frequency and volume per event. This informs the urinary nitrogen loss potential of individual cows in the dairy herd.

Once farmers possess farm-specific information about the urinary nitrogen loss in their dairy herd, this data can be incorporated into a decision support tool like Overseer. The integration allows for potential immediate benefits in reducing farm nitrogen loss relative to using a default model value. Moreover, farmers can use this information to make informed farm management decisions, including breeding and culling, to steer their dairy herd toward lower nitrogen loss potential. This, in turn, offers the opportunity for sustained year-on-year reductions in farm nitrogen leaching loss.

Welten said, “Our current research is assessing farm-level benefits of this concept on-farm nitrogen loss using case-study dairy farms linked with modelling funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries. We are looking forward to the potential large-scale adoption of this concept in the future by New Zealand dairy farmers as a new tool to mitigate farm nitrogen loss.”

To reduce the climate change impact of livestock in New Zealand and around the world, in October, AgResearch developed the Portable Accumulation Chambers, which can quantify methane emissions from cattle directly “on the farm”.

As OpenGov Asia reported, the technology was designed for easy road transport to farms or central locations, where cattle will be quickly and efficiently tested to measure how much methane they naturally emit. This data will offer farmers insight into what the climate change impact is on their herd and individual animals and assist in the selective breeding of lower-emitting animals.

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