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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"From the standpoint of watching the bottom line, it is the most valuable program I have," he says. "Income above feed costs is the name of this game," he adds, noting that using a feed management system has resulted in a 10% reduction in money spent on feed.

Bovine Biometrics

Pedometers have been in use for years, and some farms are experimenting with other biometric sensors as well. "Technology for monitoring heart rate, PH of the stomach and temperature of the cow on a real-time basis represents some exciting opportunities for earlier detection of problems," says Dairy Strategies' Smith.

TenXsys Inc., which made its name building telemetry devices for the space program, is in the process of launching a temperature sensor called SmartBolus that's designed to sit harmlessly in a cow's first stomach. The battery-powered pill-shaped device, which is 4.3 in. long and has a diameter of 1.3 in., lasts about four years. (It can't be removed; when power runs out, another is introduced.)

It takes temperature readings and uses a transponder to transmit that data 96 times a day to a solar-powered repeater in the corral. The repeater relays the readings to a PC in the office, and from there, the data is integrated with a DHI dairy management program called DHI-Plus.

Bella Health Systems LLC in Greeley, Colo., is working on a similar system that uses a passive RFID tag to log the temperature when a cow passes by a reader gate in the pen or milking parlor.

These devices can detect a cow in heat and can help with early detection of pregnancy or illness, particularly after calving, when cows are susceptible to infections that can delay their return to milk production. Scott Cockroft, owner of Cockroft Dairy in Kersey, Colo., and vice president of Bella Health, says early detection can reduce the time it takes to recover from an illness from a week or more to as little as two or three days.

The usefulness of these types of sensors remains unproven, says Jim Reynolds, a clinician in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis. Historically, temperature sensors have not worked very well because of animal temperature variations, he says. Cows allow their temperature to rise and fall with environmental conditions, and the temperature in the stomach can quickly change when a cow drinks. The systems need to take such variables into account to avoid false alarms, Reynolds explains. Nonetheless, he says the technologies have great potential.

Despite the uncertainties, technology is moving ahead in the dairy industry. Sawyer, at Diamond S Ranch, sees adaptation to high-tech ways as a maturing process, particularly as dairies get bigger. "All of these things are a natural," he says. "To do a top job, you have to rely on technology to assist you and get attention to the cows that need it."

At Fair Oaks Farm in Fair Oaks, Ind., manager Tom Sarosy is already mining operational data in new ways. "I'm constantly looking at it to see if there's a weak spot," he says.

On the other hand, Sarosy says, dairy farms could suffer from information overload if the number of IT systems and sensors -- and the amount of data they produce -- keeps increasing.

Creating lists of cows that might have problems based on biometric readings could become a distraction. The danger, says Sarosy, is that sensors "shift the focus to the technology instead of the cows."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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