Precision technologies in the dairy industry

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Precision dairy management involves the use of technology to measure indicators on individual animals and the use of automation to perform tasks. These technologies are intended to increase efficiency and improve cow management; ultimately improving farm productivity and profitability. Many of these technologies can be applied to both small and large farms.

Robotic milking systems, cow activity and rumination sensors, automatic calf feeders, and other precision technologies are becoming increasingly popular on dairy farms. Many of these technologies are not new; for example, robotic milking systems have been used in Europe for over 20 years. The increased use of precision technologies in the dairy industry is driven, in part, by an increase in the number of technologies available as technologies originally developed for other industries are adapted to the dairy industry and by increased familiarity and comfort with using technologies (smartphones, tablet computers, GPS, etc.) in every aspect of our daily lives. Earlier this summer over 550 dairy farmers, researchers, educators, and other industry professionals gathered in Rochester, Minnesota for the Precision Dairy 2013 conference to learn about precision technologies and their potential roles in the dairy industry.

Precision dairy management involves the use of technologies to measure physiological, behavioral, and production indicators on individual animals and the use of automation to perform labor and management tasks on the dairy farm. These technologies are intended to increase labor and feed efficiency, minimize environmental impacts, and improve cow health through automation or increased availability to information for improved cow management; ultimately improving farm productivity and profitability. Many of these technologies can be applied to both small and large farms.

Even though these technologies offer a lot of potential benefits, adoption rates – while increasing – still tend to be slow. The three main factors limiting adoption of precision technologies according to a 2008 University of Kentucky study were 1) a lack of familiarity with the technologies that are available, 2) an undesirable cost to benefit ratio, and 3) too much information is provided by the technology without knowing what to do with it (Bewley, 2013). Other factors limiting adoption of precision technology include a fear of technology, poor technical support, lack of time to work with the technology, lack of perceived economic value, and concerns that the technology is not yet mature. 

Many factors must be considered when evaluating the adoption of a particular technology. While economics is important, in the case of robotic milking other factors (quality of life and a lack of access to labor) are of more importance. Hogeveen and Steeneveld (2013) reported that several studies in Europe and the US have shown robotic milking is not economical when compared to conventional milking systems. Even though these systems may not be as economical, over 14% of Dutch dairy farms have adopted robotic milking technology and greater adoption rates are seen in other countries.

No matter what technology is being considered or what priorities the farmer uses when evaluating it for use on the farm, the technology is only beneficial if it is used. If breeding management and conception rates are already at a high level the addition of activity monitors may not be beneficial. Similarly, if breeding and conception rates are poor because of poor management the addition of activity monitors may not be beneficial unless other management factors on the farm are corrected. 

This fall the Penn State Extension Dairy Team will hold two Precision Dairy Technology Forums to inform farm managers on precision dairy technologies, strategies to implement these technologies, and factors to consider when taking the leap into these technologies on their farms. The first forum will be held in Chambersburg on October 18 and will focus on robotic milking and automatic calf feeding. The second forum will be held in Lancaster on October 31, and the focus of this program will be genomics and activity monitors.

Both of these educational events are free and additional information can be found at http://extension.psu.edu/animals/dairy/events.

References:

Bewley, J. 2013. Exciting Dairy Breakthroughs: Science Fiction or Precision Dairy Farming? Proceedings of the Precision Dairy Conference. Rochester, MN.

Hogeveen, H., and W. Steeneveld. 2013. Integrating It All: Making It Work and Pay at the Farm. Proceedings of the Precision Dairy Conference. Rochester, MN.



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