What Rick Adams knows about his cows is truly amazing.
On a recent walk-through, he couldn"t get the words out fast enough describing the cows, their parentage, production levels and mannerisms. A cow with the ear tag number 1467 was mentioned as the oldest cow. "She manages her time," Adams said. "She lays down when she should. She never messes (around)."
For a self-described "old-school, visual guy" like Adams, new technology that tells what the cows are doing virtually on a computer screen — rather than through personal observation — takes some adjustment. But Adams has embraced this technology, calling it a "game-changer."
Tags that monitor the cows" physical activity, including rumination, have helped Adams" Sugar Creek Dairy near Elkhorn, Wis., make some major improvements in terms of reproductive management and efficiency.
When certain body motions go up and rumination goes down, it"s a sign that the cow is in heat. That, in turn, makes breeding more precise — even reducing the need for estrus synchronization and timed AI.
Certainly, many things have changed at Sugar Creek Dairy since working with Semex to put in the Heatime HR-Tag system from SCR Dairy. For one thing, a higher percentage of cows are getting pregnant by 150 days in milk — 72 percent compared to 65 percent.
The technology has given Adams and his staff greater confidence that what they see in the barns will be backed up by what they see on the computer screen.
"The technology is always watching the cows," says Curtis Horsens, herdsman at Sugar Creek Dairy. "It"s watching (them) 24/7."
Adams points out that young people, like Horsens, are used to working on computers, and the technology is secondnature to them. They have the knowledge, but they don"t have the experience, he adds.
Sugar Creek Dairy — a 615-cow operation — is an example of young people using the technology in combination with older, more experienced cowmen like Adams to achieve remarkable results.
That is why Adams calls it a "game-changer."
Healthier cows = better reproduction
While activity and rumination monitoring is able to identify most of the cows as they come into heat — granted, there are always anestrus cows that are difficult to detect — one of the main advantages is actually achieved weeks earlier when cows begin their lactation.
By monitoring the cows" rumination activity, the farm can pick up certain cows that are experiencing metabolic problems, such as ketosis or metritis. Rumination goes down when cows experience these problems, and the HR tags around the cows" necks (with embedded microphones) can measure this.
This allows the crew at Sugar Creek Dairy a chance to spot cows with metabolic problems earlier and more reliably than they could with simple observation.
"We can spend more time with the (cows) that really need it," Horsens says.
Rumination monitoring can also show how the fresh cows — as a group — are responding to feeding changes.
Last summer, Adams changed his ration to include more canola meal since canola meal had become a cheaper alternative to soybean meal. But rumination activity was impacted right away. The canola meal was speeding up the cows" digestion, warning of possible acidosis problems. So, Adams added straw to the diet and rumination returned to normal.
Adams can still walk the pens and look at the cows" cudchewing, body condition and manure consistency. But, with rumination monitoring, he has an extra set of eyes.
In the November 2012 edition of the 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.
Less reliance on reproductive hormones
Sugar Creek Dairy is one of the dairies that have seen its use of reproductive hormones go down with the rumination/ activity monitors, since the estrus synchronization protocol — double ovsynch in this case — does not have to be followed to full completion now that there"s a better way of finding cows in heat.
Another operation, Mystic Valley Dairy in Sauk City, Wis., has seen its use of reproductive hormones go down by half to three-fourths with the HR-Tag system. The farm has eliminated tail-chalking altogether. "The goal here all along is to have 50 percent pregnant by 100 days in milk and 70 percent pregnant by 150 days in milk," says Mystic Valley owner Mitch Breunig. "We are still getting that," he adds, but the back end has been compressed by six days, which means that 70 percent are actually pregnant by 144 days.
And, "we"ve done this getting 107 pounds of milk per day," points out Kevin Jorgensen, director of dairy programs for Select Sires, who works with Mystic Valley, a 450-cow operation.
Perhaps the most telling statistic: Seventy-eight percent of the cows are now bred on natural heats and 22 percent are bred on timed AI.
That is a complete reversal from a year ago (and years previous), when approximately 72 percent were bred on timed AI. Activity/rumination monitoring tightens the timeline, allowing the AI technician to get a better jump on things. At Mystic Valley, a technician comes at 8 in the morning and will inseminate any cow that has shown a blip on the activity/ rumination monitor since his last visit the previous afternoon. When he returns at 4 p.m., he will inseminate cows that have shown a blip since morning.
It appears from progressive producers like Breunig and Adams that activity/rumination monitoring has great potential for getting cows pregnant. Yet, no one wants to discount the tremendous progress that has been made over the years with estrus synchronization and timed AI. The next several years will see a transition, no doubt, as producers balance the technologies and find the right combination for their operations.