The national animal identification System may not be mandatory, but that hasn’t stopped some forward-thinking dairy producers from implementing its principles and tools, such as radio-frequency ID (RFID) as part of an electronic ID system. While maybe not revolutionary, the result has been positive enough to create changes across the dairy industry.

“We got into electronic ID about three years ago to be ahead of the game if NAIS became mandatory,” explains John Huie, of Hillcrest Dairy in Le Grand, Calif. And now he can’t imagine being without it on the 4,000-cow dairy. “It’s been a great tool for us.” A few minor technical glitches at the onset were quickly solved, and the technology has become a vital tool in the dairy’s management.

That’s because the system — consisting of a hand-held computer loaded with an application to interface with regular herd-management software and a RFID reader/scanner, usually a hand-held wand — significantly increases cow-record accuracy, protocol consistency and labor efficiency.

For these reasons, electronic ID pays.

Sharpen compliance

Compliance is probably the biggest challenge on dairies today, says Brandt Kreuscher, of Valley Ag Software. “For example, even with very aggressive synchronization protocols, reproduction is still a challenge, and the issue usually comes down to compliance.”

It’s not that most people deliberately omit shots or skip cows on purpose. The lack of compliance is due to a variety of factors, including misread tags, cows in the wrong pens and so on. According to data from the University of Minnesota, when you manually read ear tags, you typically find 85 to 90 percent of animals on a protocol list. Therefore, 10 to 15 percent of animals that need attention — vaccination, injection, preg-check, or transfer to another pen — are still waiting for you to find them and take action.

Even if your compliance is off by just 3 percent at the beginning of a typical presynch/resynch protocol, by the time you reach the end of all required steps, you can be off by as much as 25 percent. (See chart above.)

That is where real progress can be made, using an electronic-ID system. It enables users to identify nearly all animals on a list generated by herd-management software, says John Lee, formerly of the Atwater-Merced Veterinary Clinic in California and now a veterinarian with Pfizer Animal Health. The systems don’t misread ear tags, skip animals or find the wrong cow on a list.

Nearly 100 percent compliance is a realistic expectation, Lee says. “And, consistent compliance results in greater profitability year after year.”

Improve data accuracy

The system enables you to increase compliance, thanks to more accurate data.

The technology eliminates wrong ear-tag numbers entered into the system, as well as tag-number or data-transposition errors, notes Ladd Muirbrook, account executive at DHI Provo. “There’s nothing for people to write down, so most human error is eliminated right off the bat.”

It also is invaluable in finding cows in wrong pens.

“On large dairies, it’s hard to keep track of individual animals,” Huie says. “This system was not cheap to implement, but it helps me keep much more accurate inventory records, and that’s the biggest benefit to me.” He says for that reason alone, the system has easily paid for itself.

No longer does Huie and a couple of employees have to search for cows that appear on a list, but are not where they are supposed to be. 

“I have the option of adding her to the pen where she currently is and updating the records, or we can move her back to her original pen,” Huie says. Either way, the cow’s record and the pen record are accurate.

Accurate pen records translate into more accurate feed delivery, says Lee. Since pen inventory is corrected every time you scan a list, whether it’s once a week or every two weeks, feeders deliver more precise levels of feed to each pen. This results in less waste, and ensures that cows receive their prescribed ration quantity.

Furthermore, you can use the system to accurately track inventory of recombinant bovine somatotropin, prostaglandin and other tools.

It also enables users to upload accurate data to the office computer. “I don’t have to enter data into the computer after vet-check,” says Huie. “It’s uploaded automatically, and there is a lot less chance of me making a mistake.”

Improve labor efficiency

Nearly every electronic-ID user attests that it makes employees significantly more efficient. Instead of manually looking up and down a printed list to connect cows with tasks, the scanner finds all animals in a matter of seconds. And those time-savings add up quickly.

For example, an Idaho dairy reduced time spent giving synch injections by three hours a week. It also spent an hour less per week drying off cows, reduced vet-checks by 2.5 hours, and spent two hours less per week on inventory. As a result, the dairy eliminated one full-time position. If wages for the position were $10 per hour, that’s a savings of more than $20,000 per year.

By facilitating synch protocols, vet- checks and other tasks requiring a management list, employees can move on to other important tasks.

In many cases, you may not cut your labor force using electronic ID, but you will make it more efficient, says Kreuscher. “In the dairy industry, we haven’t changed the number of people in middle management, but we’ve greatly increased the number of cows they are responsible for. This technology expands the impact of middle management.”

Unexpected benefits

Furthermore, electronic ID has generated some pleasant surprises for users.

An Arizona dairy discovered that the hand-held computer enabled employees to see the screen in the dark. Since the wand reader didn’t require light either, cows could be worked on in the early-morning hours when it was cooler. And, employees didn’t need flashlights to read printed lists or read ear tags. The quicker read-time also meant cows were locked up for shorter periods and could return to feed and water sooner.

“You also don’t have to try to read printed lists,” says Huie, or decipher someone’s handwriting when it’s time to upload data to the office computer.

Finally, the rugged hand-held computers are easier to work with in inclement weather than paper lists. A rain-soaked piece of paper makes compliance nearly impossible.  

0.5% Error Rate on 100 Cows

 

Injection           Cows in Compliance

1st Prostaglandin

 

99.5

 

2nd Prostaglandin

 

99.0

 

1st GnRH

 

98.5

 

3rd Prostaglandin

 

98.0

 

2nd GnRH

 

98.5

 

Breed

 

97.0

 

63% open at Vet Check

 

96.6

 

3rd GnRH

 

96.2

 

4th Prostaglandin

 

95.9

 

4th GnRH

 

95.6

 

Breed                  (4.7% out of compliance)

 

95.3

 

 

3% Error Rate on 100 Cows

 

Injection           Cows in Compliance

1st Prostaglandin

 

97.0

 

2nd Prostaglandin

 

94.0

 

1st GnRH

 

91.0

 

3rd Prostaglandin

 

89.0

 

2nd GnRH

 

86.0

 

Breed

 

83.0

 

63% open at Vet Check

 

81.0

 

3rd GnRH

 

79.0

 

4th Prostaglandin

 

78.0

 

4th GnRH

 

76.0

 

Breed                  (25% out of compliance)

 

75.0

 

Charts courtesy of DHI PROVO

Even a small drop in synchronization-protocol compliance can become a significant problem. The charts above show how a 3 percent error rate translates into 25 out of 100 cows being out of compliance for the protocol. This can add up to serious losses due to extended days in milk, missed dry-offs and missed breedings. Conversely, with electronic ID and a 0.5 percent error rate, just five out of 100 cows are missed.

How the system works

Properly configured electronic ID systems operate seamlessly with your herd-management software, says John Lee, formerly with the Atwater-Merced Veterinary Clinic in California and now with Pfizer Animal Health.

First, you generate a task list using the herd-management software on your office computer. You can create any list you need, including vet-check lists, vaccination lists, pen-move lists, synch lists, and so on. Any action list that is generated can be sent to and managed by the software on the hand-held computer, explains Lee.

Then, take your hand-held computer and scanner — usually a wand-reader — to the animals. Each animal has a transponder, whether as a radio-frequency ID ear tag, an implanted RFID chip, or a RFID transponder worn around her neck.

The scanner is connected wirelessly to the hand-held computer. If the animal appears on the list, and action is needed, the user receives an audio prompt about the tasks to be performed. The prompts can be customized for both English- and Spanish-language users.

If the animal requires no action, that prompt is issued, too.

As each action is taken, users enter the data into the hand-held computer either automatically or manually. Then, once all animals have been scanned, data are uploaded from the hand-held computer back to the office computer and integrated into your herd-management records.