Joint Chair aims to leverage AI and IoT to improve animal welfare in Canadian dairy farms

First-of-its-kind project involves broad consortium of industry stakeholders from Canada and will create a digital living lab to link animal welfare and dairy farms’ profitability
Published: 19 April 2023

McGill University and the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) announced today the creation of the Research and Innovation Chair in Animal Welfare and Artificial Intelligence (WELL-E). The five-year, $5 million Chair will carry out a major research project funded by a grant from NSERC Alliance and PROMPT, fiduciary of the Ministry of Economy, Innovation and Energy. Important contributions have also been made by industrial partners Novalait, Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC), Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO), Les Producteurs de Lait du Québec (PLQ), and Lactanet.

This initiative comes at a time when, on the one hand, demand for sustainable animal production is led by citizen concerns regarding animal welfare and environmental sustainability, while, on the other, economic pressure on dairy producers is mounting due to changes in markets and increasing input prices with little to no changes in output sale prices. A growing body of scientific evidence shows that animal welfare and cow longevity are correlated. This has led the industry to focus on cow welfare and improved longevity as a key to addressing issues of economic, social, and environmental sustainability in dairy farming.

The Research and Innovation Chair in Animal Welfare and Artificial Intelligence (WELL-E) - which will be led by Professor Elsa Vasseur, Department of Animal Science, McGill University and Professor Abdoulaye Baniré Diallo, Department of Computer Science, UQAM, – relies on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT), allowing for earlier detection of changes in cow welfare and longevity, before the onset of visible signs.

Thanks to algorithms, integration of data from on-farm cameras, IoT devices and available dairy producers’ databases, we are now able to provide predictions that aid in on-farm decision-making and provide dairy producers with actionable data to help improve and extend the lives of their livestock. In Canada, the dairy industry represents a significant sector of the economy with $7.13 billion of revenue, and one that employs over 43,000 Canadians, both in farming and in manufacturing dairy products, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Supported by industry as well as national and international academic collaborators, the project will provide a unique interdisciplinary research training environment and platform for at least 50 postdoctoral fellows, graduates, and undergraduate trainees. The funded project will initially be rolled out on two pilot research farms, one in Quebec and the other in Ontario, but will quickly be expanded to a network of over 100 farms across the two provinces, creating a digital living lab centered on animal and dairy producers’ needs. On a greater scale, through its collaboration with numerous stakeholders, WELL-E’s research will build capacity for the future. It also aspires to create an incubator of talent comprised of entrepreneurs and students in Canada, whilst trailblazing towards the emergence of new expertise and knowledge within the combined fields of animal welfare science and AI.

“Uniting the strengths of McGill and UQAM in fields as diverse as animal science and artificial intelligence is a clear sign of the dynamism of Montreal’s research community,” said Professor Benoit Boulet, Associate Vice-Principal, Innovation and Partnerships at McGill. “By crossing disciplinary boundaries, we invigorate our quest for knowledge and all of Canada stands to benefit.”

"I am looking forward to this fruitful collaboration with McGill and the industrial partners. The work led by our expert in bioinformatics and AI, Professor Abdoulaye Baniré Diallo, will solicit the expertise of many colleagues in computer science, mathematics and biology," says Christian Agbobli, Vice-Rector of Research, Creation and Diffusion at UQAM. "This research project will provide access to cutting-edge knowledge in the areas of digital technology, governance, ethics and responsible management for dairy producers concerned with animal welfare."

“Dairy farmers across Canada are pleased to support the creation of the Research and Innovation Chair in Animal Welfare and Artificial Intelligence (WELL-E),” said Pierre Lampron, President of Dairy Farmers of Canada. “Across Canada, dairy farmers have long fostered a culture of excellence and continuous progression by ensuring that every litre of milk produced in Canada is produced in accordance with some of the most stringent animal care standards in the world. We are excited to support this research initiative as it will serve as the genesis for future practices and tools that further advance our industry-wide animal care objectives.”

“Novalait's initial investment in the previous Industrial Research Chair on Sustainable Life for Dairy Cattle led by Elsa Vasseur has generated concrete solutions to optimize stall comfort,” said Elise Gosselin, Managing Director of Novalait. “Dairy producers can also count on data and recognized expertise to provide scientific insight into the welfare issues of dairy cows. Solicited for a research continuation, Novalait quickly showed interest in the collaborative and innovative approach of the co-chairs, Elsa Vasseur and Abdoulaye Baniré Diallo. Thank you for taking up the challenge of using artificial intelligence in a living laboratory of commercial farms to improve the longevity and well-being of dairy cattle.”

“The WELL-E initiative brings to life our vision that animal welfare and technologies are catalysts for both human & animal well-being as well as agricultural sustainability as a whole. Moreover, the focus on welfare in and of itself will allow the development of new key performance indicators,” said Elsa Vasseur, Co-holder of the Chair.Our research will allow to assess how modifications to the cow's physical environment and management impact welfare and longevity outcomes, and how the digital environment enhances end users' abilities to improve the cow's physical and psychological experience, while giving new keys to the dairy industry for ensuring its sustainability.”

“One of the challenges of the research will be processing a high volume of real-time and heterogeneous data, along with historical data, in order to create a dynamic environment of continuous monitoring via the digital living lab,” said Abdoulaye Baniré Diallo, Co-holder of the Chair. “This ‘Big Data’ problem will be approached by leveraging the appropriate bioinformatics and artificial intelligence techniques, all while respecting privacy and data security issues. All the performed research will be guided by F.A.I.R. principles for scientific data management and stewardship as well as a strong E.D.I. commitment”.

About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill University is Canada’s top ranked medical doctoral university. McGill is consistently ranked as one of the top universities, both nationally and internationally. It is a world-renowned institution of higher learning with research activities spanning three campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 39,000 students, including more than 10,400 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,000 international students making up 30% of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 20% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

About Université du Québec à Montréal

Open and daring, the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM) is a French-speaking public university, which welcomes more than 35,000 students. It offers more than 335 programs, nearly half of which are at the master's and doctoral levels, attached to the School of Management (ESG UQAM) or to one of its six faculties: arts, communication, political science and law, science, educational science, and humanities. In addition to its Montreal campus deployed in downtown Montreal, at the heart of the "knowledge economy", UQAM offers comprehensive study programs as well as several day, evening or weekend courses in its four campuses located in metropolitan areas. UQAM ranks first in Quebec and eighth in Canada in terms of research funding, in the category of general purpose universities. It has established international agreements in collaboration with more than 400 partners in 60 countries.


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