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Title:
SYSTEM AND METHOD FOR MONITORING OF AN ANIMAL
Document Type and Number:
WIPO Patent Application WO/2015/126240
Kind Code:
A1
Abstract:
System (1) for monitoring an animal (4) in an animal shed (3), comprising - an animal-identifying device (6) configured to determine an identity of an animal which is situated near the animal-identifying device, - a tracer-dispensing device (11) which is configured to automatically dispense at least one tracer to the identified animal, - a control unit which is operatively coupled to the animal-identifying device and is configured to cause the tracer-dispensing device to dispense at least one tracer on the basis of the determined animal identity, wherein the tracer comprises an RFID tag and is configured to be ingested by the animal and to be excreted again, in particular a passive RFID tag. By causing the animal to ingest such a tracer and excrete it again in the manure (45), it is also possible to link manure to an individual animal when the animal is no longer near the manure, thus making individualised manure analysis in a free-range animal shed or the like possible.

Inventors:
VAN HALSEMA, Frans Emo Diderik (Weverskade 110, PA Maassluis, NL-3147, NL)
LOOSVELD, Serge Louis (Cornelis van der Lelylaan 1, PB Maassluis, NL-3147, NL)
Application Number:
NL2015/050006
Publication Date:
August 27, 2015
Filing Date:
January 07, 2015
Export Citation:
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Assignee:
LELY PATENT N.V. (Weverskade 110, PA Maassluis, NL-3147, NL)
International Classes:
A01K11/00; A61D7/00
Domestic Patent References:
WO2011020145A12011-02-24
WO2001019178A12001-03-22
Foreign References:
JP2006149253A2006-06-15
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
JENNEN, Peter Leonardus Hendricus (Cornelis van der Lelylaan 1, PB Maassluis, NL-3147, NL)
Download PDF:
Claims:
C L A I M S

1. System for monitoring an animal and for use in an animal shed where animals can roam freely, the system comprising

- an animal-identifying device configured to determine an identity of an animal which is situated near the animal-identifying device,

- a tracer-dispensing device which is configured to automatically dispense at least one tracer to the animal identified by the animal-identifying device,

- a control unit which is operatively coupled to the animal-identifying device and is configured to cause the tracer-dispensing device to dispense at least one tracer on the basis of the determined animal identity,

wherein the tracer comprises an RFID tag and is configured to be ingested by the animal and to be excreted again, in particular a passive RFID tag.

2. System according to Claim 1 , wherein the tracer-dispensing device comprises a storage container containing at least one tracer to be dispensed.

3. System according to Claim 1 or 2, furthermore comprising a feed- dispensing device which is coupled to the tracer-dispensing device and is configured to dispense an amount of feed to the animal identified by the animal- identifying device, wherein in particular the tracer-dispensing device is configured to automatically dispense the at least one tracer to the amount of animal feed.

4. System according to any of the preceding claims, wherein the RFID tag is programmable at least once.

5. System according to Claim 4, configured to programme the RFID tag by storing one or more data, in particular linked to a certain animal identity, on the RFID tag.

6. System according to any of the preceding claims, comprising an RFID tag reader which is configured to read at least a part of the information stored on the RFID tag.

7. System according to any of the preceding claims, configured to link information provided on the RFID tag to information in the control unit, which information in the control unit at least comprises a datum linked to the specific animal identity.

8. System according to any of the preceding claims, wherein the tracer comprises a biodegradable sheath.

9. System according to any of the preceding claims, wherein the tracer- dispensing device is configured to dispense several tracers to the amount of animal feed.

10. System according to any of the preceding claims, wherein the feed- 5 dispensing device comprises a feeding trough or drinking trough, in particular a concentrate-providing device.

1 1. System according to any of the preceding claims, comprising a feeding trough to receive dispensed animal feed so as to be accessible to an animal, which feeding trough is provided with

10 - a tracer-detecting device which is configured to detect tracers which are situated in the feeding trough.

12. System according to Claim 1 1 , wherein the feeding trough is provided with a feeding trough-cleaning device which is configured to clean the feeding trough in such a way that the tracer-detecting device no longer detects any

15 tracers.

13. System according to any of the preceding claims, provided with a milking station and a milking robot for milking a dairy animal at the milking station.

14. System according to any of the preceding claims, furthermore comprising an RFID tag reader which is portable and operable by an operator.

20 15. System according to any of the preceding claims, furthermore comprising an autonomous vehicle provided with an RFID tag reader and in particular with a manure detector.

16. System according to Claim 15, wherein the autonomous vehicle comprises a manure sampler.

25 17. System according to Claim 15 or 16, wherein the vehicle comprises a manure analyser which is configured to analyse manure and thereafter to generate an analysis signal, comprising analysis data of the analysed manure.

18. System according to Claim 17, wherein the control unit is configured to receive and/or read out the analysis signal, in particular wherein the vehicle is

30 configured to send the analysis signal to the control unit.

19. System according to Claim 18, furthermore comprising a device which is controllable by the control unit to carry out an operation on at least one of the free-roaming animals, in particular the feed-dispensing device, wherein the control unit is configured to control the device on the basis of the analysis signal.

20. Method for managing animals in an animal shed with free-roaming animals and with a system according to any of Claims 1 -19, wherein the method comprises:

- determining the identity of an animal,

- dispensing an amount of animal feed containing at least one tracer with at least one datum thereon to said animal,

- linking said at least one datum and the specific identity,

- detecting at least one of the supplied tracers in an amount of manure, and

- executing at least one animal-related operation on the basis of the detected tracer.

21. Method according to Claim 20, comprising analysing at least some of the manure, wherein the execution of the animal-related operation depends on the analysis.

22. Method according to Claim 21 , wherein the operation comprises adjusting a feed regime of the animal.

Description:
System and method for monitoring of an animal

The present invention relates to a system and a method for monitoring an animal. A vehicle for manure analysis is known from EP1 101095, which according to said document, is able to identify which manure is associated with which animal. However, no details are given with regard to this. Furthermore, it is known per se to take measureson the basis of analysis of the manure, at least when deviations are detected, to counteract these deviations. A clear example is when the respective animal has diarrhoea or constipation and the manure consequently has a strongly diverging viscosity.

A drawback of the known system is that it is not clear how it can be put into practice, since it is unclear how the manure of an animal can be linked to the identity of the respective animal, so that suitable measures can be taken. After all, it will not be easy to establish that identity , in particular in an animal shed where animals can roam freely.

It is an object of the present invention to provide a system of the type mentioned in the preamble which can monitor an animal, at least better, in particular by means of the manure of said animal.

According to the present invention, this object is achieved by a system according to claim 1 , in particular a system for monitoring an animal and for use in a animal shed where animals can roam freely, the system comprising an animal-identifying device configured to determine an identity of an animal which is situated near the animal-identifying device, a tracer-dispensing device which is configured to automatically dispense at least one tracer to the animal identified by the animal- identifying device, a control unit which is operatively coupled to the animal- identifying device and is configured to cause the tracer-dispensing device to dispense at least one tracer on the basis of the determined animal identity, wherein the tracer comprises an RFID tag and is configured to be ingested by the animal and to be excreted again, in particular a passive RFID tag. The idea behind the present invention is that marking the manure of an animal can be performed expediently by causing the animal to ingest an identifying mark and excrete it again. In this way, manure can also be linked to an individual animal when the animal is no longer near the manure. The identification by means of a tracer with an RFID tag makes simple and reliable identification possible. Note that it is known per se to introduce a bolus with a similar tag in an animal. However, this bolus has to remain inside the animal virtually permanently, making it unsuitable to monitor the animal by means of excreted products, in particular manure. In the present application, RFID tags are used which can pass through the digestive tract of an animal, which finds expresseion in the dimensions of the tracer. These dimensions therefore have to be adapted to the digestive tract of the animal to be monitored. For example, but not exclusively, tracers of 1x1x1 cm 3 or smaller can be used for cows, such as miniaturized RFID tags the size of a grain of rice. Obviously, this size will depend on the size of the animal.

Note that marking each heap of manure by means of such a tracer is not necessary, it is however assumed that the manure heap which contains the at least one tracer is characteristic of the manure of the animal.

In particular, the RFID tag is a passive tag, that is without a battery. Due to the fact that they lack a battery, these can be made smaller, but can only be read out by activation through a readout signal. Due to the lack of a battery, the respective RFID tags are, in addition, often safer for the animal, although the use of miniaturised batteries is likewise not excluded.

The animal-identifying device in the system according to the invention may be any known animal-identifying device, such as in particular a RFID reader, as commonly used with for example milking robot systems. However, alternatives are also possible, such as (optical or otherwise) ear tag readers or via an optical image recognition system.

After identification of the animal by the animal-identifying device, the tracer- dispensing device, in operation, automatically dispenses at least one tracer to the animal in such a way that the tracer ends up in the digestive tract. In particular, this will take place by ingestion via the mouth of the animal. Further advantageous embodiments are described in the dependent claims and in the following description.

In embodiments, the tracer-dispensing device comprises a storage container containing at least one tracer to be dispensed. The storage container contains an adjustable stock of tracers, such as one or more per animal which is to be monitored.

In embodiments, the system furthermore comprises a feed-dispensing device which is coupled to the tracer-dispensing device and is configured to dispense an amount of feed to the animal identified by the animal-identifying device, wherein in particular the tracer-dispensing device is configured to automatically dispense the at least one tracer to the amount of animal feed. In these embodiments, the tracer is administered together with an amount of animal feed, such as with an amount of solid or liquid feed or with an amount of water. The idea behind this is that the animal will be more willing to consume the tracer while eating/drinking than when the tracer is being offered separately for ingestion, although the latter is not excluded. In addition, giving a tracer by means of animal feed makes it easier for the animal to ingest the tracer which will, after all, be very small. In particular, the RFID tag is programmable at least once. One such programmable RFID tag, at least such a tag containing a programmable chip, offers the possibility to provide the tag with desired data or a desired code before, or even shortly before, it is being administered. It is also possible to already provide the code during production, but this limits flexibility.

In embodiments, the system is configured to program the RFID tag by storing one or more data, in particular data linked to the specific animal identity, on the RFID tag. In these embodiments, the system itself is configured to program the RFID tag, in particular just before it is being given, as a result of which optimal use can be made of the memory space on the RFID tag. After all, this memory space will often be limited due to the small dimensions of the tag. In particular, the programmed data are coupled to the specific animal identity of the animal to which the tracer is given. Of course, such data may comprise the animal identity itself, such as an ID number, as well as other data, such as the time, the amount of feed which was dispensed while the tracer was being administered, etc. Programming of the tag/chip may take place, for example, by sending and inputting the data to a WORM memory or the like. Note that it is also possible to use pre-programmed tags/chips in the tracer, in which case a connection is made in the control unit of the system between data or codes which have been stored on the tag/chip beforehand and the animal identity, and other data. To this end, the system according to the invention may comprise a programming device in or near the control unit, on the dispensing device or separately therefrom. An advantageous position is, for example, a dispensing opening in the dispensing device, because the tracer(s) to be dispensed substantially pass by separately there and it can thus be ensured that there is a small distance to the programming device, which is advantageous or even necessary in order to programme RFID tags.

In embodiments, the system comprises an RFID tag reader which is configured to read at least a part of the information stored on the RFID tag. Naturally, the RFID tag reader is configured to read the stored information. The information may concern information which has been programmed on it just before the tracer was dispensed, so that this programming can be checked. It may also concern previously stored information or data, in such a way that a connection can be made between the tracer, in particular a code or other stored information, and the determined animal identity. Thus, it is always possible later, upon detection of the tracer, to link it to that animal.

In particular, the system is configured to link information provided on the RFID tag to information in the control unit, which information in the control unit at least comprises a datum linked to the specific animal identity. As has already been indicated above, the information, or the data, may be provided in full on the tracer or RFID tag or be stored essentially in the control unit and only linked to a code or the like on the tracer/tag . In such cases, the connection will be made by the control unit and will be stored in a data file.

In embodiments, the tracer comprises a biodegradable sheath. By means of such a biodegradable sheath, such as for example polylactic acid, the tracer can be provided with a wall which protects the animal from possible negative effects of the tracer, so that, for example, biocompatibility can be ensured. Incidentally, the tracer does not have to comprise such a biodegradable sheath, but it could also, for example, comprise a non-degradable sheath, such as glass, or could even be entirely uncovered, in particular with very small tracers.

In embodiments, the tracer-dispensing device is configured to dispense several tracers to the amount of animal feed. In this embodiment, several tracers are thus dispensed and these naturally do not all have to be excreted by the animal simultaneously. This offers the possibility of marking several heaps of manure with tracers, thus increasing the chance of finding at least one manure heap of the animal. In these embodiments, it is possible to adiminister both identical or different tracers to the animal. An example of the latter could comprise preprogrammed tracers, in which case it may be advantageous to read all tracers when they are being dispensed, so that the data can be stored. If identical tracers are being used, these may all be programmed simultaneously during dispensing or, for example, be chosen from a separate stock. After all, it is also possible to follow only a single animal per system, so that only one type of tracer is required. Nevertheless, tracers which are programmable or otherwise non-identical provide greater flexibility when monitoring the animal. The number of tracers to be dispensed may depend on the amount of animal feed to be dispensed, in case the latter is dispensed simultaneously. For example, the concentration of tracers in the animal feed is kept substantially uniform. Being able to automatically dispense tracers not only limits the amount of work, but also increases the possibilities with regard to giving them to animals.

Advantageously, the feed-dispensing device comprises a feeding trough or drinking trough, in particular a concentrate-providing device. Although the feed- dispensing device is not particularly limited and may also comprise, for example, a feeding fence or the like, it is advantageous to use a drinking trough or feeding trough, in particular a concentrate trough, because these are often already provided with metering means which may optionally be animal-individual. In particular, concentrate troughs are already provided with animal-identifying means, so that these do not have to be provided and/or fitted separately. In embodiments, the system comprises a feeding trough to receive dispensed animal feed so as to be accessible to an animal, which feeding trough is provided with a tracer-detecting device which is configured to detect tracers which are situated in the feeding trough. This embodiment offers the advantage that it is possible to check if the tracers have been ingested by the identified animal. After all, if the tracer-detecting device still detects one or more tracers when an animal leaves the feeding trough, expressly also comprising a drinking trough, it will be clear that not all tracers have been ingested by the preceding animal. This can be taken into account in, for example, the stored data. Incidentally, other moments of detection are also possible, such as when identifying a subsequent animal. In addition, it is sufficient if the tracers are detected, without these additionally having to be identified. Advantageously, however, the tracer-detecting device is configured to identify tracers situated in the feeding trough, so that it is possible to determine whether at least one tracer has been ingested which is consequently no longer identified in the feeding trough. Consequently, the identified animal is provided with at least one tracer.

In particular, the feeding trough is provided with a feeding trough-cleaning device which is configured to clean the feeding trough in such a way that the tracer- detecting device no longer detects any tracers. In these embodiments, tracers which have not been ingested by an animal are prevented from being ingested by a subsequent animal, as a result of which the identification function is made more difficult. Although it is obviously possible to determine, on the basis of the tracers detected by the tracer-detecting device, which tracers have been ingested by which animal, this increases the uncertainty and the risk of mistakes. The feeding trough-cleaning device may be configured in many ways, such as with a flushing system and outlet or a feeding trough-tilting device or the like, with alternatives not being excluded. As an alternative or in addition, the feeding trough-cleaning device may comprise a tracer inactivation device which, for example, is able to inactivate tracers by sending a suitable signal, similar to the known inactivation devices at tills in shops.

In embodiments, the system is provided with a milking station and a milking robot for milking a dairy animal at the milking station. These embodiments are for use in dairy farming where monitoring animals is very important due to the high strain dairy animals are under. In addition, in animal sheds where animals are free to roam, a milking robot will often be used as the milking device. Such a milking robot often already comprises a concentrate trough, so that it is simple to fit the tracer- dispensing device on it and to establish a connection to the animal-identifying device and control unit which are already common in milking robots. However, alternative uses in other systems are likewise possible. An important alternative is the use in meat farming, in which the animal shed contains one or more groups of meat animals which are free to roam within said group. Another alternative is to provide tracers to stray pets, making it possible to trace possible nuisance.

In embodiments, the system furthermore comprises an RFID tag reader which is portable and operable by an operator. In this embodiment, an operator can use the RFID tag reader to identify a manure heap, that is to say to determine the identity of the associated animal. This can be done by the operator, for example, on the basis of a choice made by him, or systematically. The operator may then, either himself or on the basis of for example a sample, determine the traits of the manure in order to take suitable measures, if desired, on the basis thereof. Such portable RFID tag readers are, for example, already in use with veterinarians and the like.

In embodiments, the system furthermore comprises an autonomous vehicle provided with an RFID tag reader and in particular with a manure detector. In these embodiments, the amount of work which people are required to do is reduced still further due to the fact that it is the autonomous vehicle performing the above-described actions instead of an operator. By driving past one or more heaps of manure, the autonomous vehicle provided with the RFID tag reader can determine the "identity" of these heaps. This may be effected, for example, by having the autonomous vehicle follow a fixed route through the animal shed. It is also possible to provide the vehicle with a manure detector which can detect a manure heap, for example on the basis of optical image recognition. Furthermore, it is possible to use an external manure detector in the system, such as one based on (video) image recognition and/or sound recognition. On the basis of such an external manure detector, the control unit may be configured to direct the autonomous vehicle purposefully to one or more detected heaps of manure. In particular, the autonomous vehicle is configured to register, advantageously in the control unit of the system, data regarding the manure heap, such as the position and the like. In particular, the autonomous vehicle comprises a manure sampler. As an alternative, or in addition, the autonomous vehicle comprises a manure analyser which is configured to analyse manure and thereafter to generate an analysis signal, comprising analysis data of the analysed manure. In these embodiments, the autonomous vehicle is configured to take a sample from a manure heap by means of an automatic pipette, a gripper or the like. Likewise or alternatively, the vehicle may also comprise a manure analyser to determine data about the manure heap, such as moisture content, fibre content, etc. This may be carried out on a manure sample which has been taken, but also without taking a manure sample, for example by means of optical techniques. Reference is made to the aforementioned document ΕΡ1 10Ί 095 for details regarding the manure analysis to be used.

In this case, analysis may comprise the following procedures which are common per se: comparison to one or more reference values, such as historical values or values from the literature, application of regression or other analysis, etc. The manure analyser may be configured accordingly. The analysis data, as well as, optionally, other data, such as environmental variables, position of the manure heap, time, etc., may be included with or in the analysis signal as analysis data. In embodiments, the control unit is configured to receive and/or read out the analysis signal. In particular, the vehicle is in this case configured to send the analysis signal to the control unit. In these embodiments, the control unit of the overall system is configured to receive and/or read out the analysis data from the vehicle in the form of the analysis signal. In this way, the analysis data become available to a user of the system and/or to the system itself, as will be explained in more detail below. Receiving and/or reading out can be effected in many different ways, such as by means of a data connection or the like. In particular, the vehicle comprises a transmitting device which is operatively connected to the manure analyser and is configured to send the analysis signal to the control unit of the system.

In embodiments, the system according to the invention furthermore comprises a device which is controllable by the control unit to carry out an operation on at least one of the free-roaming animals, wherein the control unit is configured to control the device on the basis of the analysis signal. In particular, the device is or comprises a or the feed-dispensing device. In these embodiments, the system is configured to make use of the analysis signal, in particular of the analysis data comprised therein, to carry out an operation on the one or more animals, in particular the identified animal whose manure has been analysed. The operations may be many, but are directed in particular on operations which can influence the manure. In particular, the device comprises a feed-dispensing device which is controlled by the control unit in order to dispense a portion of feed which has been set or adjusted on the basis of the analysis data to the animal in question. Setting or adjusting the portion of feed may comprise, for example, the amount, the composition or the metering regime. However, alternative operations may also include, for example, separating an animal, marking the animal as to be separated or emitting an alarm signal. Alternatives are not excluded in this case.

The invention furthermore relates to a method according to Claim 20, in particular a method for managing animals in an animal shed with free-roaming animals and with a system according to the invention, wherein the method comprises: determining the identity of an animal, dispensing an amount of animal feed containing at least one tracer with at least one datum thereon to said animal, linking said at least one datum and the specific identity, detecting at least one of the supplied tracers in an amount of manure, and executing at least one animal- related operation on the basis of the detected tracer. The method according to the invention fundamentally exhibits the same advantages as described for the system according to the invention. For the sake of brevity, these will therefore not be repeated below. Nevertheless, in principle all characteristic features with their associated advantages apply in full to the method. In particular, the method comprises analysing at least some of the manure, wherein the execution of the animal-related operation depends on the analysis. This method may be executed by an operator, such as a farmer or veterinarian, or by a system according to the invention.

In particular, the operation comprises adjusting a feed regime of the animal. As described above, adjusting (or setting) the feed regime may comprise adjusting the amount of feed, the composition of the feed and/or the metering regime. The composition may be changed, for example, in order to provide more or less fibre material, more or less energy content, a different ratio between concentrate and roughage, etc. The metering regime may relate, for example, to the minimum time between portions of feed, the maximum amount per portion of feed, a dispensing speed during a feeding, etc. All this will depend on the type of animal to which the method is applied, as well as the reason why the animal is being reared, such as milk production or meat production.

The present invention will be explained in more detail below with reference to the drawing which diagrammatically shows a non-limiting embodiment of the invention, and in which:

- Fig. 1 diagrammatically shows a plan view of an animal shed with a system for monitoring according to the invention;

Fig. 2 diagrammatically shows a front view of a combined tracer- and feed- dispensing system for use with the invention;

Fig. 3 shows a vehicle for use with the system for monitoring according to the invention.

Fig. 1 diagrammatically shows a plan view of a system for monitoring an animal according to the present invention.

The system is denoted by the general reference numeral 1. Reference numeral 2 denotes a milking device and reference numeral 3 denotes a free-range animal shed with dairy animals 4 and a manure-sampling vehicle 5.

A dairy animal 4' to be milked is situated in the milking device 2 and is identified by an animal-identifying device 6 at a milking station 7 with controllable cubicle gates 8. Milking takes place by means of a diagrammatic milking robot 9, while reference numeral 10 denotes a feeding trough which is filled from tracer-dispensing device 1 1 and feed-dispensing device 12.

Reference numeral 13 generally denotes a control unit provided with an aerial 14.

The system 1 for monitoring an animal 4 comprises a tracer- dispensing device 1 1 and in this case also a feed-dispensing device 12. More details thereof will be explained with reference to Fig. 2. The monitoring system 1 is fitted near a milking device 2, where a dairy animal 4' to be milked can be milked individually. To this end, the animal is often lured by means of feed in a feeding trough 10, in the course of which animal 4' to be milked will enter the milking station 7 through the open cubicle gate 8. Once it has entered the milking station 7, the dairy animal 4' will be identified by the animal-identifying device 6, such as a tag reader which reads an RFID tag in the collar of the animal.

Feed is poured into the feeding trough 10, in particular animal- individual, by feed-dispensing device 12 and will be eaten by the animal 4' to be milked. As part of this procedure, the tracer-dispensing device 11 may dispense one or more tracers. These can then be ingested by the animal 4' to be milked. The optional dispensing of one or more tracers may be effected under control of the control unit 13 which can send the respective instructions to the tracer- dispensing device 1 1 via a cable link or for example via an optional aerial 14. It should be noted that the control unit 13 may also form part of a control unit of the milking robot 9.

After the animal 4' to be milked has ingested a tracer, the latter will remain inside the body of the animal for some time, after which it is excreted in a manure heap 45. This manure heap 45 may be approached by the manure- sampling vehicle 5 which is an optional part of the system for monitoring an animal. Further details regarding this manure-sampling vehicle will be explained with reference to Fig. 3.

Fig. 2 shows a diagrammatical front view of a combined tracer- and feed-dispensing device for use with the present invention.

Above the feeding trough 10, the feed-dispensing device 12 comprises a feed downpipe 15 which is connected to first, second and third feed containers 16-1 , 16-2 and 16-3, respectively, which contain first, second and third types of feed 17-1 , 17-2 and 17-3, respectively, which can be metered by means of first, second and third feed-metering devices 18-1 , 18-2 and 18-3, respectively.

The tracer-dispensing device 1 1 comprises a tracer storage container 20 containing tracers 21 , a tracer-dosing flap 22, a tracer-programming device 23 (optional), a tracer downpipe 24 and a tracer reader 25 (optional).

Here, a metered feed mixture 19 and a metered tracer 26 are shown in the feeding trough 10, comprising an RFID chip 27 covered with a sheath 28. Reference numeral 29 denotes a tracer reader, reference numeral 30 a water inlet, reference numeral 31 a valve and reference numeral 32 a discharge.

The feed-dispensing device 12, under control of a or the control unit

(not shown), dispenses feed to an identified animal by metering one or more types of feed from the respective feed containers 16 by means of the respective feed- metering devices 18. The feed subsequently drops into the feeding trough 10 via feed downpipe 15. Thus, the feeding trough 10 will contain an amount of metered feed mixture 19. This feed mixture 19 can be eaten by an animal which is situated in the milking station 7.

If this animal has to be monitored, a or the control unit may instruct one or more tracers 21 to be added to the feeding trough 10. To this end, a or the control unit will make one or more tracers 21 available via the tracer downpipe 24 by controlling the tracer-dosing flap 22. If desired, it is possible to programme the tracer(s) by means of the tracer-programming device 23 before they are supplied. Thus, it is possible to add information to the tracer, such as an animal identity, a time, etc. Programming may take place in any known manner, in particular by programming a WORM chip which is already present in the tracer 21 by means of a radio signal or the like. It is also possible to use pre-programmed tracers 21 which are for example provided with a unique code.

The optional tracer reader 25 is used for checking purposes to see which tracer is added to the feed and/or to check if the programming of the tracer 21 was successful. In practice, the tracer reader 25, the tracer-programming device 23 and any other tracer-reading and/or writing devices will be connected to a or the control unit, in which information regarding the tracer(s) and the animals connected thereto will be stored. In particular with regard to the animal identity, the feed which is supplied, and the composition, amount, metering regime and time thereof. Fig. 2 shows a tracer 26 on top of the metered feed mixture 19 which has likewise been metered. The tracer 26 comprises an RFID chip 27 which is surrounded by a sheath 28. The sheath 28 will preferably be biocompatible, so that disadvantageous effects for an animal which ingests the tracer 26 will be limited or even completely absent. The sheath 28 may comprise, for example, a biodegradable product, such as polylactic acid, or a substance which is in principle inert, such as glass.

Thus, a mixture of feed 19 and a tracer 26 (or several tracers) is provided in the feeding trough 10, which mixture can be ingested by the animal at the milking station 7.

Reference numeral 29 denotes a tracer reader which monitors whether one or more tracers have indeed reached the feeding trough 10 as well as whether one or more tracers are still present after the animal has left the milking station 7, at least the feeding trough 10. Thus, it is possible to monitor if the animal has actually ingested one or more tracers and, if so, which one(s).

If one or more tracers 26 remain behind in the feeding trough 10 after the animal has left the feeding trough 10 at the milking station 7, the feeding trough 10 can be emptied. This may be achieved, for example, by opening a valve or even the bottom of the feeding trough 10. In Fig. 2, this is effected by flushing the feeding trough 10 by supplying water via the water inlet 30 and allowing it to run off via the valve 31 and the outlet 32. The flushing water supplied will carry away any remaining feed and tracers, so that identification of manure of an animal will remain unique. It should be noted that the water inlet 30 can also be used to enrich a dry feed mixture 19 and to make it into a mash which is more readily ingestible.

Fig. 3 diagrammatically shows a side view in cross section of a manure-sampling vehicle for use in the present invention.

The vehicle comprises a housing 50 with wheels 51 for moving across the floor 40. Reference numeral 52 denotes a camera and reference numeral 53 denotes an aerial. A vehicle control unit is denoted overall by reference numeral 54 and a sampler by reference numeral 55. The sampler 55 leads to a manure analyser 56 and to three sampling chambers 59 via a distribution valve 58. Reference numerals 57-1 and 57-2 denote two tracer readers. The manure-sampling vehicle 5 here is an autonomous vehicle which is able, by means of the vehicle control unit 54 and wheels 51 , to drive across the floor 40 of, for example, an animal shed, such as the free-range animal shed 3. In this case, the vehicle 5 may comprise further devices, which are not shown in more detail, such as a navigation device and the like.

The vehicle may furthermore receive instructions via the aerial 53 or the like. The illustrated camera 52 records images of the environment of the vehicle 5. By means of image recognition software in, for example, the vehicle control unit 54, the vehicle can recognise heaps of manure 45 in the environment and move towards them. Alternatively, the vehicle 5 may also receive instructions comprising, for example, coordinates via the aerial 53. In this or any other way, the vehicle will then be moved close to a manure heap 45.

Once it has arrived, the first tracer reader 57-1 may be used to try and receive a signal from a metered and excreted tracer 26. If the signal is associated with an animal which has to be monitored, the vehicle 5 may carry out an analysis of the manure heap 45, for example by means of optical techniques used on images recorded by the camera 52. This includes, for example, colour, amount (for example if the camera 52 is a 3D camera), etc. Furthermore, the vehicle according to Fig. 3 is provided with a sampler 55, such as an automated suction pipette. The sampler 55 sucks a sample out of the manure heap 45, which sample is moved to the manure analyser 56. The latter comprises, for example, a density meter, a viscosity meter and a chemical analysis device. Reference is made to the EP document mentioned in the introduction for more details. It should be noted that in addition to an automated pipette, other sampling devices are also possible, such as a small scraper, small gripper, etc.

Furthermore, a second tracer reader 57-2 is provided in the vehicle underneath the manure analyser 56. This may be used, for example, to identify a sample for which the first tracer reader 57-1 did not receive a signal, for example because the tracer 26 was situated too far away from the first tracer reader 57-1 .

After analysis, the sample may be sent from the manure analyser 56 to one of the illustrated sample chambers 59, for example by means of small pumps (not shown), via the distribution valve 58. There, the sample may be stored for later analysis. Obviously, different amounts of samples are also possible. The illustrated vehicle 5 is an embodiment in which the monitoring is largely carried out autonomously. An animal is given one or more tracers containing a code which is linked to the identity and other data of the animal. After the tracer has been excreted by the animal in a manure heap, the manure heap can be identified and analysed. Identification and analysis may also be carried out by an operator. He/she may walk through the free-range animal shed or another animal space, for example, with a portable tracer reader and hold the tracer reader over a manure heap. If an ID signal is received from the tracer, the manure heap can then be analysed by the operator, both visually and with respect to viscosity, odour, etc. Furthermore, a sample can be taken for further inspection.

If desired, an animal-individual operation may be carried out using the data obtained automatically or through an operator. In particular, the manure analysis data will be suitable to adjust a portion of feed if necessary. To this end, the metered feed mixture which is to be dispensed for example using the feed- dispensing device 12 from Fig. 2 may be adjusted using the manure analysis data. For example, the control unit may provide a different ratio or amount of one or more of the types of feed 17-1 , 17-2 or 17-3. Naturally, different numbers of types of feed are also possible. In addition, it is also possible to adjust the portion of roughage, the supply of water, optionally the milking regime on the basis of their feed conversion rate, etc.

More generally, it can be stated that the present invention offers advantages when monitoring an animal, in particular its health or feed efficiency. Monitoring the manure by means of ingested and excreted tracers in this case offers the option of individual manure analysis without having to identify the manure when it is being excreted.