At 7 a.m., Joel Sutter sits down at a computer to review his cows’ rumination activity.

“It gives me an outline for the day,” he says. “It gets me mentally prepared for what I am walking into.”

Listen to what the cows are sayingRecently, he noticed that one of his cows with tag number 6397 had ruminated 191 minutes the day before, which was below her average. It was enough of a red flag that Sutter checked her out. She appeared normal, but Sutter and his employees planned to observe her a little more, particularly her eating behavior.

Every cow has her own pattern, and cow 6397 certainly has hers. And, with a tag around her neck to monitor rumination behavior with an embedded microphone, it is literally possible to listen to what she is saying.

It puts Sutter in a more proactive position with his cows, including the ability to spot health problems earlier, monitor the effectiveness of health treatments and improve heat detection.

Health monitoring

Sutter’s farm, Fertile Ridge Dairy near Mt. Horeb, Wis., bought 350 of the rumination tags last year.

Fresh cows get the most attention.

“A lot of times, we look for illness,” Sutter says. “With fresh cows, we look for a ketosis issue.”

Early detection is a plus. With rumination monitoring, Sutter says he can pick up the signs of illness 12 to 24 hours earlier than he could with visual observation. “You’re a step ahead of the game,” he says.

Sutter has found that cows with ketosis often have a good rumination pattern for the first five days post-calving, but then there’s a reduction in rumination activity — or pullback — on day 6 to 10. “Those are the cows I check and they tend to be ketotic,” he adds. (Experts say a cow-side confirmatory test, such as a blood or urine test, is needed once a cow is identified as a ketosis suspect.)

Once a cow is diagnosed with a health problem, rumination monitoring allows Sutter and his staff to see if treatment is working or not — for instance, with ketosis, the effectiveness of oral propylene glycol.

Research backs it up

Italian researchers, writing in the Journal of Animal Science last June, found that measurement of rumination time is “a useful tool for herd management, and in particular could help the farmer to identify the animals with a higher probability of health disorders.”

In November 2012 edition of Journal of Dairy Science, researchers from Germany wrote that rumination time is an appropriate measure for early detection of metabolic disorders. But their main focus was on estrus or heat detection. They found that rumination time was significantly reduced during estrus, which makes rumination monitoring a useful tool for heat detection.

Are the rumination tags an accurate measure?

In the January 2011 edition of the Journal of Dairy Science, researchers from the University of British Columbia and Free University of Berlin in Germany, reported the type of rumination monitoring system that the Sutters are using — the HR Tag system from SCR Dairy — is an accurate tool for monitoring rumination behavior in animals that are nine months of age or older.

‘Worth every penny’

When Bowman Dairy Farm in Hagerstown, Ind., went from bull breeding to estrus synchronization and AI, it precipitated some questions that ultimately led to farm to purchase the rumination tags.

Co-owner Trent Bowman says he wasn’t impressed by the estrus synchronization programs, so he started looking at the heat-detection aspect of the rumination tags. “It was the first thing that drew me to them,” he says. But once he got into it more, he found the tags had other advantages such as health monitoring.

“Health monitoring, to me, is worth every penny of the cost of the system,” he says, “and the heat detection part of it is a freebie.”

With the rumination tags, he can get a better handle on subclinical ketosis. And that, in turn, has helped reduce the displaced abomasum (DA) rate on his dairy. Experts say early detection and treatment of subclinical ketosis can reduce the risk for DAs by almost half. Yet, at Bowman’s dairy, the DA rate is down more than that — from nine DAs a month prior to buying the rumination tags to two a month now.

Bowman’s farm is fairly large, at 1,000 cows, which raises the question — is it best to do the monitoring on an individual-cow basis or a whole-herd basis?

With health monitoring and heat detection, it’s best to do individual-cow monitoring, since each cow has her own rumination pattern or daily average.

But there are some things that can be done on a herd basis, such as watching for changes in rumination following a feeding change. Generally speaking, when rumination goes down, it means something adverse has happened.

Bottom-line: These systems provide producers with a proactive means of monitoring cow health and intervening early. And, that is a good thing in the eyes of the consuming public. Whatever a farmer can do to get a better handle on his cows, take better care of them, and document it to the public is worth its weight in gold.

Everyone wants to know that you have “listened to the cows.”