Time-lapse cameras can benefit dairy farmers whether the facility is old, new or refurbished. In many cases, footage from such cameras clearly shows where improvements can be made to increase efficiency and production, and to identify potential animal welfare issues.

Brian Dougherty, field engineer, Iowa State University Extension, explained that initially, time-lapse cameras were used in feed bunk studies to identify problems with feed delivery timing, feed push-up or lack of bunk space. Farmers today find that cameras can aid in evaluating stall design and stall usage, overcrowding, lack of bedding and traffic flow in robotic systems.

In robotic barns, cameras can help farmers determine what’s happening at the robot during different times of the day as well as identify individual cows that continually block gates. The robotic area may be quiet in the morning and show cows in heat but without any crowding. Later in the day, when fetch cows are coming in, a back-up may be developing at a robotic station.

Time-lapse cameras take photos at preset intervals then automatically stitch photos together to create a video. Cameras are relatively inexpensive, ranging from $100 to $400, depending on features and accessories.

Time-lapse cameras are available with a variety of features and settings. One important setting to consider is the frame rate, or the number of images per second stitched together. Dougherty said 10 frames per second works well for dairy facilities. The capture interval is how often the camera takes a photo and depends on what camera is being used for. Another important feature is a time stamp to track the date and time of activity. Dougherty advised farmers to watch cow activity over a period of time for the best evaluation of what’s happening in a barn.

“If you want to pick a cow out of a group to track her around the barn, you need a short capture interval – about five to 10 seconds,” said Dougherty. “For feed bunk monitoring, the capture interval can be greater at about 30 to 60 seconds. Lower image quality is usually enough because higher quality means the memory fills faster.” He recommended using a 16 GB or larger memory card to allow recording of reasonable blocks of time.

Eyes in the barn

Time-lapse cameras can reveal deficiencies in feeding areas and help managers make changes for better feed availability. Photo by Sally Colby

Consider where and how to mount the camera, and realize it make take some experimenting before the camera is in the most ideal location. Place a weatherproof cover over the camera to protect against dirt and moisture. Avoid mounting a camera near fans or curtains. It’s important to secure the camera firmly so there’s no excess movement.

It often takes some creativity to securely mount a camera. A good installation location may enable the farmer to capture several key activity areas of a barn with one camera. Dougherty suggested checking footage after the first day or so to determine whether to make adjustments in placement, timing or lighting.

Even though the footage consists of individual photos stitched together rather than actual video, the files are large and should be saved to a hard drive on a computer. “Depending on the external storage device, whether it’s a thumb drive or an external hard drive, sometimes the video will lag or not play at all,” said Dougherty. “For watching the video, use a Windows media player or Mac QuickTime player. A better option for watching is using software that may come with the camera.”

Challenges for installing and using time-lapse cameras can also include finding proper lighting. In some cases, shadows or dark spots are not immediately obvious, especially in nighttime footage.

Dougherty said although cameras don’t require a lot of light for nighttime use, adequate lighting will aid in viewing nighttime footage. Insufficient light will result in a black screen and will be immediately noticeable. Early or late day sunlight can also interfere with picture quality. Repositioning the camera can solve this problem.

A time-lapse camera is cheap technology that can improve management and profitability. A good camera and proper installation will result in a more useful video footage. Dougherty said that although the system is capturing and compressing a period of time, to get the best use from cameras, it’s important to set aside time to watch footage and note what’s happening.

“It’s a great way to identify opportunities to improve management or ways to tweak your facility design,” said Dougherty. “The key with time-lapse is [discovering] things you don’t notice or go unidentified because it isn’t possible to have someone there for 24 hours to watch what’s happening.”

by Sally Colby