Technology can help dairy hit a home run

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The pitcher may be known to throw high and inside, but have you practiced to swing at any opportunity to potentially hit a home run? Or do you wait for the perfect pitch before trying to make contact with the ball?

The dairy industry cannot afford to come to the plate unprepared, unpracticed and hoping for the perfect situation. The opposition and the marketplace are hurling fastballs, as well as sinkers, change-ups and curveballs, and you have to be ready to hit whatever pitch is thrown at you.

Lately, you’ve even had to deal with some wild pitches in the form of undercover videos alleging awful animal abuse. And, unfortunately, the general public knows a lot more about baseball than it does about the intricacies of modern dairy farming, so it’s easy to get behind on the count.

Here’s why you need to let people know that while your commitment to animal care has not changed over the years, the advanced tools and technology you use today allow you to continually do a better job of caring for your animals.

Choose your audience

Before you launch into a technical conversation about the various tools that enable you to monitor a myriad of heath and welfare parameters, make sure you’ve reinforced the fact that, first and foremost, you care about the well-being of the critters under your care.

The following information is intended to provide you with additional data to help explain and teach others about the lengths you and animal researchers are willing to go to ensure that farm animals receive proper care. Save these discussions for sincerely interested parties and policy-makers, rather than casual exchanges. 

“The key in all of these situations is to not become defensive, even though that might be your first instinct,” says Jude Capper, assistant professor of dairy science at Washington State University. “Instead, calmly make your case, beginning with ‘I do care, and here’s how.’  We do have a good story to tell.”

New and not-so new tools

Technology is not a dirty word, but in the case of animal agriculture it usually requires additional explanation and context. 

As you well know, dairy farmers have honed animal husbandry skills for generations, and these core values still exist. Along the way, the industry tapped into science and technology to improve practices and find early-intervention opportunities when problems arose. And animals and producers benefited

“There are good reasons for the animal husbandry practices we use. But that doesn’t mean we don’t make incremental changes as the need arises,” says Janice Swanson, director of animal welfare at Michigan State University and acting chair of the animal science department. “A combination of new and existing technologies helps us accomplish our goals.”

Cows, farmers and researchers have been well-served due to the fact that these tools offer objective measures versus older, more subjective measures of animal health and well-being. “It helps us validate what we see,” Swanson adds. As a result, dairies feature better housing, better nutrition, better cow comfort and better management systems than those of even 10 years ago.

However, these tools must be easy to use, implementable and affordable in order to gain the most success.

Technology sampler

Here’s a brief look at a few of the technologies in play. Some of these tools have made their ways to farms, while others are still primarily research-oriented. Regardless, each ultimately serves to help farmers improve the health and well-being of their animals via improved best practices and early interventions. 

  • Infrared thermography. These devices monitor the heat coming from the animal and can be used for monitoring health concerns like inflammation or stress and pain responses. These data can then be used to identify and treat cows before such injuries or concerns become significant health issues.
  • Telemetric ruminal boluses. These devices feature radio frequency identification to monitor animal health from the inside out, while reducing the need to handle the animal.
  • Force plates. These tools were originally developed to help determine the weight of an animal without the use of a large scale and have been modified to detect lameness. Force plates and sensors can determine normal weight load for each leg and detect when an animal shifts her weight load improperly due to lameness.
  • Wireless accelerometers and pedometers. These devices are attached to a cow’s leg or another part of her body and track her movement and activity, like bunk attendance. These data can be used to monitor several health parameters, including lameness and transition period disorders.
  • Video observation. Cameras enable farmers and researchers to view animal activity from their home or office.
  • IceSampler. This is a low-stress, back-pack tool used by researchers to automatically draw routine blood samples from livestock without having to handle them. 

The exciting thing about all of this technology is that you can more easily quantify behavioral or health parameters and use this information to make management decisions that benefit your herd. For instance, you can demonstrate that your cows are more comfortable using one practice or another because you can track cow responses that show this to be the case, notes Swanson.

Or, as researchers from the University of British Columbia have shown, you can monitor transition cow feeding behavior as an early indicator of disease and take appropriate interventions to ensure improved cow health.

“All animals, regardless of environment (free-stall, tie-stall, on pasture or even in the wild), have daily challenges to deal with,” says Swanson. “It’s the chronic stresses that develop into problems, and we need to work to reduce these issues and ensure that farm animals have a good quality of health and life. That’s what these tools help us to do.”


Know when to speak up

Your first instinct is to defend your industry from misinformation and targeted attacks. But, if you don’t exercise a little caution, you could also inadvertently create controversy where none existed, giving the issue a platform and a larger audience than you ever intended — or the issue deserves.

So, when should you take action? Use these tips from the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin:

  • Listen.Monitor conversations to see if people in the community are expressing concern. For example, have friends or neighbors approached you about the issue? Is it being talked about at the local coffee shop, grocery store, PTA meetings or church functions? Has the issue surfaced in the local newspaper, or on local television and radio talk shows and newscasts?
  • Use sound judgment.There is no need to draw attention to the topic if no one is talking about it. Even if the subject comes up once or twice in close circles, it still may not deserve a big response. You’re close to the situation, so you must put things in perspective and context. Just because another farmer is talking with you about the latest controversy doesn’t mean the general public is giving it much thought, but pay attention to conversations around you to be sure.
  • Respond.If the subject comes up among non-farm friends and neighbors with increasing frequency and you feel the conversation is taking root in your community, and particularly if it gets media attention, it’s time to quickly implement a communication strategy. This includes actions like letters to the editor, contacting reporters for follow-up coverage, serving as an “expert” resource and offering to speak at various community functions. Share your message in as many one-on-one conversations as possible. Be sure to coordinate your efforts with your fellow farmers.

Regardless of the circumstance, engage in civil and value-based conversations. Don’t focus exclusively on science; after all, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Start with the fact that you care and then you use science to verify and reinforce your decisions.


Communicate that you care

Listening to the questions people ask is the most important, and often the most overlooked, part of any conversation. Before engaging in discussions about what you do on your dairy or how you do it, listen first to what is really being asked.

Then, you can provide answers that truly resonate with the other person’s values and beliefs. If you’re not sure what they’re asking, ask a few questions of your own.

When it comes to animal care, by and large, consumers want animals to be treated humanely and they believe farm practices directly impact food quality, says Donna Moenning, senior vice president of industry image and relations for the Midwest Dairy Association.

If someone asks you about what you do for animal care on your dairy, tell him that your cows receive regular medical care, including periodic check-ups, vaccinations and prompt treatment of illness. And that dairy cows must be healthy and well-cared for in order to produce pure, wholesome milk.

Listen carefully to any follow-up questions and answer accordingly.

“Just be sure you give them a ‘glass’ of information, not the entire ‘tanker’ load,” she suggests.


More benefits of technology

It’s not just animal care that benefits from technological advances and gives you a better story to tell. Agriculture’s role in the environment has also gotten a boost from technology.

For example, research has shown that due to modernization and the adoption of technology, the U.S. dairy industry has reduced its total carbon footprint by 41 percent since 1944. And to meet the future demand for dairy products, the use of technology will enable farmers to do so with 8 percent fewer cows than and use 5 percent less land than in a conventional system, according to Jude Capper, assistant professor of dairy science at Washington State University.

Meanwhile, data just released from a study at Stanford University show that advances in high-yield agriculture during the latter part of the 20th century prevented the equivalent of 590 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

“Our results dispel the notion that modern intensive agriculture is inherently worse for the environment that a more ‘old-fashioned’ way of doing things,” says Jennifer Burney, lead author of a paper about the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.



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