Moo IT: Milking advanced tech to keep dairy cows fat and happy

Dairy farmers have been technology pioneers for decades, and they're still ahead of the herd

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Wilson's one complaint is the cost of the tags, which, at $115 per collar, add up quickly in a 400-cow herd. "If you find a cow running around without her collar, you start running around looking for it," she says.

But costs are dropping like cow pies. The USDA is pushing, but has not yet required, standard RFID tags for tracking purposes. BouMatic's proprietary transponder tags, which are read as each cow enters the milking parlor, do not comply with the USDA's standards. But both farmers and vendors believe that standard tags will eventually be required. So Hanford, Calif.-based John Visser Dairy -- with 16,000 cows in four locations -- was one of the first to transition to a new BouMatic system that uses ISO-standard RFID tags. These are sourced from AllFlex USA Inc., a major tag producer.

"We expanded our herd and didn't want to spend more money for the big transponders and [standard] RFID tags," says Visser Dairy general manager Brian Schaap. Although BouMatic transponders cost $25 each, Schaap is paying just $2.50 per RFID tag, and the USDA-compliant tags are saving thousands of dollars in sensor-tag costs.

RFID Roundup

Schaap also uses those same RFID tags outside of the milking parlor, where about half of dairy farm labor costs are incurred. Herdsmen now use HP iPaq Pocket PC handheld computers and scanning wands with DairyComp to identify animals that need various services.

The 3-foot orange wands read the tag on each cow's ear and transmit the ID number to the handheld via Bluetooth wireless technology. As each cow is scanned, the iPaq checks the ID number against a work list. It then sends an audio message to a Bluetooth headset, telling the worker what the cow needs, such as a vaccination or a pregnancy check.

At the end of the day, workers put the iPaqs into docking stations that upload the data to the dairy management system by way of a USB or Wi-Fi connection. The system improves accuracy and saves labor by allowing one person to perform tasks that previously required two or three people, says Schaap.

Bluetooth was the real breakthrough in that system, not the RFID tags, says Eicker. Older systems required workers to bring a laptop into the barn and use a wand connected by a long cable to read the ID tags. "If you've been around cows, the word for that is stupid," he says.

The government's 15-digit bovine ID standard and ISO-compliant RFID tags provided a common identification technology that is lowering costs, Eicker says, but "Bluetooth was the technology that got rid of the wires and broke this open."

Technology also plays a key role in feed management. At Diamond S Ranch in Waterford, Calif., manager Tom Sawyer uses iPaqs and Wi-Fi links to monitor the feed mix provided to about 1,300 cows. "We feed for performance. That's where the money is," Sawyer says.

Cows that are at the peak of their lactation cycles and are producing more milk get more-expensive feed. Others get a less-expensive mix. Each recipe has a combination of four ingredients that are loaded into a mixing wagon. An HP iPaq computer interfaces with a scale in the wagon and displays on an LCD panel which ingredients to add and when to stop. The iPaq is also used for data entry, and all feed purchases are time- and date-stamped as they arrive.

As workers load the wagon, the data is transmitted via Wi-Fi to a server in the office running EZfeed, a feed management system from DHI Computing Service Inc. in Provo, Utah, that integrates with the ranch's dairy management software. Using the tool, Sawyer can precisely allocate rations, and he knows what he has in inventory and how much money is tied up in feed at any given time.

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