Stay Informed of Technology Advancements

Published on Wed, 11/21/2018 - 2:00pm

 Stay Informed of Technology Advancements

 By Bruce Derksen for American Dairymen Magazine

 The days of the average dairy farmer sitting on their homemade 3-legged wooden stool and hand milking their way through a dozen cows, is long gone.  Computers have become commonplace throughout all walks of life including the dairy operation’s milking parlors, barns and pastures.  We are fully connected to search engines, data processors, research studies and clouds with the potential goal of improving profitability, milk quality, animal welfare and the lifestyle of today’s producers with just a few clicks of a mouse.

Not all dairies make use of every advancement, but the list of possibilities grows longer.  All aspects of a cow’s life can be tracked using an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tag or a computerized collar that identifies each animal, monitors their activities and location, collecting data that provides insights on their health, heat stress, feeding, efficiency, and estrus cycle.  Rumination sensors track abnormal activity which can be an early warning sign of illness or infection.  Ankle attached pedometers monitor exercise activity and structural health.
And the technology is not only confined to the cows but extends to the equipment as well.  Some operations have the cows moving freely about the barns deciding when they want to be milked with only limited human interaction.  Upon entering a robotic milking stall, they are identified and fed while a robotic arm disinfects their teats and attaches and holds the milkers in place gently milking with vacuum systems that mimic the movements of a calf. Milk yield recordings provide individual animal data including the amount produced, trends and milk components such as protein.  Computerized refrigeration units chill the milk for safe storage while Time Temperature Recorders (TTR’s) do an automatic temperature check every 15 minutes.  Robots maneuver their way through the alleys pushing feed closer to the bunk fence-lines.  
Some operations have incorporated the use of drones in monitoring the health and activity of their cow herds.  Surveillance can prompt action in the case of emergencies and assess moisture levels of pasture lands and crops.  Facial recognition software is available to identify cows using the spots, markings and shape of face.  Barn computers send text messages when a check on a cow or piece of equipment is necessary.

Technology benefits are multi-faceted.
For the producer, automated milking systems reduce the labor required to handle cows increasing the quality of life through improved efficiency.  When milk prices become volatile, efficient dairy farmers will have a better probability of staying financially stable.
Technology benefits the animals by reducing health issues through the monitoring of body temperatures, rumination patterns and activity levels.  Sick and lame cows are treated earlier resulting in lower disease losses, increased longevity and improved animal well-being.  The cow’s comfort is enhanced by items such as back scratchers, swinging body brushes, misters and fans to keep them itch free and cool on the hottest days.
Advancements also promote a twofold consumer confidence that milk is of the highest quality and animals are being properly cared for.  
The increasing use of solar panels is reducing energy consumption giving greater control over greenhouse gas emissions.  Methane digesters turn waste, manure and leftover feed into energy using large heated tanks where bacteria break down the components producing methane, which in turn produces electricity and heat.
But as is the case with all potential technologies, there may be negatives and shortcomings.  Dr. Jeffrey Bewley, Assistant Professor at the University of Kentucky and expert in precision dairy farming stated, “The basics of doing everything we can to provide the cow with a comfortable, minimal stress environment still hold true. It’s important to remember that a technology only tells us what is wrong. It’s up to skilled herds-people to decide on how to react to an alert.  Good cow people will always be an asset to a dairy farm and prevention is always more effective than treatment.”
Technology advancements will keep coming to the dairy industry whether we are ready or not, but on an operational level it must be economical, reliable, easy to use and backed by excellent customer service.  The dairy industry needs to continue to assure the consumer that the goal and result of technologically advanced production benefits the animals as well as the producer.