Northern Ireland’s farmers are set to benefit from a 3D app developed to help reduce disease and improve growth in dairy calves through improvements to calf housing.

The new app, named Optihouse, allows farmers to step inside a 3D online calf house and see the features that are essential for the healthy rearing of calves.

The research for the app was funded by the Department of the Environment, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and the development of the app was led by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) with Belfast-based tech company Sentireal.

The app is free and has built-in features which allow farmers to tweak their existing sheds or create a new one from scratch. The aim of the app is to minimise risks to calves from inadequate housing.

Senior research scientist and manager of the project, Gillian Scoley, said: “It is the first time we have used this type of technology allowing tech and agriculture to come together.

“With the help of Sentireal, the CAFRE dairy advisory team and industry experts we developed an app which allows the farmer to step into a virtual calf house where they can see how housing design choices affect the rearing environment for young animals.

“Our research looked at things like how temperature and humidity can impact calves. Where calves are in a cold or damp environment, they are more vulnerable to disease risk which can impact how they grow and develop.”

Scoley said most farmers are aware that calves need to be kept warm, but that there has never been a “real understanding” of what the environmental conditions are in Northern Irish calf houses.

“Obtaining this information has been key to seeing what improvements can be made to housing facilities for calves to thrive,” she said.

Optihouse involved a team of researchers from AFBI Hillsborough, Queen’s University Belfast, the CAFRE dairy advisory team and a group of international veterinary, academic and industry experts.

Optihouse research

Optihouse researchers visited 66 farms across Northern Ireland during the process of the app’s creation.

The team concluded that simple things like good ventilation, keeping the young calves warm and dry and always ensuring high levels of hygiene were most important.

Speaking on Optihouse, Scoely said: “It is a realistic and easy-to-use tool which offers farmers two options – to build their own calf house or go in and look at those modelled from real farms which they can tour with 360 degree movement and compare to their own.

“There are educational tools to help with the design of a new calf house if that’s what farmers want to do.”

Chief executive of Sentireal, Tom Houston, said: “We were delighted to work with the research team at AFBI to bring their vision to life.

“The calf house experience is completely immersive and in 3D and we hope that it helps in the education of farmers and the health of their young calves.”