The growth of automation and precision tools in the dairy industry is amazing. Every day there seems to be a new option in the market or in the works.
Those of you who went to the World Dairy Expo had the opportunity to see various options now available in the U.S. market including, but not limited to, automated cow prep, four brands of robotic milking systems, various automated calf feeders (including an option for feeding up to 32 calves individually before moving them to group feeding), a teat-cup that automatically post-dips every cow before takeoff (every teat will be appropriately dipped, which will help reduce SCC and mastitis), an automated TMR mixer that delivers feed in the freestall barn, automated cow brushes, automated feed pushers and alley scrapers, automated climate control options, various barn and stall options for better cow comfort, automated feed and forage analysis, various individual cow monitors for activity, rumination, temperature, feeding behavior... the list is quite long and there are probably more that I haven't mentioned.
It is certainly exciting to have so many options from which to choose in the dairy industry to help farms be more efficient and productive. But are we getting overwhelmed? What to use? How to choose what is best for each operation? What is really working?
Before investing in a new technology, it is important to verify that the technology has been validated (i.e., tested to see if it is measuring what it is supposed to be measuring or doing what it is supposed to be doing) by independent, unbiased research sources, and to make sure that service is available in your area. If possible, visit operations that already have the technology and learn from other producers. Estimate your return on investment and determine whether you have the equity and cash flow needed to make it viable. You need to think about your short- and long-term goals and whether the technology will fit your operation and help you achieve those goals.
At our Precision Dairy Conference in Rochester this summer, Henk Hogeveen (associate professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands) mentioned some key factors that can make precision technologies successful. First, the system itself that measures one or more parameters is important, but after developing the system and making sure it works, the second step is data interpretation or how to transform the data into useful information. What are we detecting and what is the gold standard for that parameter? What will be the course of action? The technology can only be useful if it leads to some action such as breeding or treating the cow or improving the overall housing and management on the farm. Another important step would be to integrate the information with other data sources to improve the performance and value of the system.
Hogeveen added a second key factor, and that is cost efficiency. Benefits of the technology should be more than the cost. However, costs are clear and benefits are often indirect, as many of the new sensors are designed to help reduce health problems, such as mastitis, metabolic disorders or lameness.
The third key factor for success are non-monetary factors (such as risk, the farmer's goals and preferences), and availability of labor or capital. These factors would probably be more important than profit maximization on farms where the family provides a large proportion of the labor.
As we talk about non-monetary factors, a technology that is growing in our region is robotic milking. Based on our research on this topic, producers who adopted this technology wanted to improve their quality of life and have a more flexible work schedule. They wanted to be able to participate in family activities. They wanted to use new technologies. They wanted to expand herd size by a fraction without hiring much extra labor.
I gave a presentation on robotic milking at the World Dairy Expo in early October and the room was full (my presentation can be found at www.worlddairyexpo.org under videos). Many producers seem to be considering robotic milking systems as the way to go for their operation. Recently, additional cow monitoring besides daily milk, cow weight, milk conductivity and cow activity are being added to robotic systems, including milk fat, protein, somatic cell count, progesterone and ketones in every quarter at every milking. Wow! We can know more about our cows than ever before. Of course the extra monitoring technology will cost more. But how much is it worth? Individual cow sensors will help improve reproductive efficiency, reduce mastitis, improve transition cow management, reduce disease prevalence, reduce mortality on farm, improve cow longevity, and in the end, all of these will contribute to improving the bottom line and animal welfare.