IT pioneers

Since the 1950s, the dairy industry has led the charge to apply IT to agriculture

The dairy industry was an early adopter of information technology, and dairy farms have been among the most aggressive businesses in the agricultural industry at applying IT. Dairy IT got its start in the 1950s, when an IBM mainframe was used to develop the first dairy records management system and a genetics database, says Terry Smith, president and CEO at consultancy Dairy Strategies LLC.

Early on, dairy farmers gleaned information from monthly milk samples taken by technicians from organizations such as the Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA). The data from those samples was run through back-end systems to produce reports on individual cow productivity that could be compared with industry averages.

Scott Taylor, general manager at the California DHIA, developed DairyTrak, one of the first computer dairy management program for microcomputers, in the late 1970s. As the owner of a 600-cow dairy in Washington, he saw a need for a dairy management program for microcomputers and contacted programmer Steve Alstrom, who wrote the software in UCSD Pascal to run on an Altos computer with a CP/M operating system.

"He thought it would take 300 hours to write the software, [and] he said, 'I'll do that for $1,000 and three sides of beef.' It ended up taking him 3,000 hours," Taylor recalls.

On-farm dairy management systems, when integrated with milk metering systems, allowed farms to capture milk production data in real time and produce their own reports, bypassing the need for monthly technician visits. But the data often wasn't kept up to date, and farms eventually returned to the associations. As systems have matured and become more integrated, the on-farm back office is becoming the data center, says Smith.

"If I have a software program on my dairy, I have a picture of how my cows are doing. With the DHIA, I know how they are doing compared to everyone else," says Taylor.

The DHIA performs a more detailed analysis of the milk content, keeps data backed up and offers comparison data against similar farms in the same geographic area. But though most farms are still involved in DHIAs, some have decided that it's not worth the trouble to participate in the monthly sampling programs.

Mary Wilson, president of Thomas Farms of Garland, Maine Inc., dropped such a service and now relies entirely upon on-farm systems. She has daily, rather than monthly, averages for milk weights, she says, and she can skip the monthly technician visit. "I don't have to schedule around having an extra person here," she says.

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

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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