Dairy herds may be growing in size, but cow management is still best done one cow and one group at a time. With new technological advancements stretching from the parlor to "the cloud," managers can not only focus on individual cows, but do it in increments of minutes, or even seconds.
To explore new technologies and share how they are implemented by dairy herd managers, the 2015 Precision Dairy Farming Conference &; Expo was held in late June in Rochester, Minn. The event, chaired by Marcia Endres, University of Minnesota, and Jeffrey Bewley, University of Kentucky, attracted about 320 dairy farmers and others interested in dairy technology.
In addition to company experts and university dairy technology specialists, more than a dozen dairy farmers shared experiences regarding technology adoption and use. Dairy Herd Management provides a summary of some of those presentations, with more to be featured in future issues.
Finke Farm, Illinois, Nashville, Ill.
Craig Finke's Finke Farm has been called one of the most – if not the most – automated dairy farms in North America. The dairy uses robotic milkers and an all-automated feeding system. While one of only a couple of dairies using both systems in the U.S., Finke said more than 70 such dual-system dairies exist in Europe.
"That tells you how far behind the curve we actually are in terms of technologies, compared to what the rest of the world utilizes," he said.
Finke, who farms with his wife and two children, said reliance on technology was out of necessity, both in terms of his physical health, and his future. He already has had two back surgeries.
Finke Farm's 120 cows are milked in a two-box (Galaxy Astrea 20.20), single-arm (Motoman) system. The cows are housed in a 106'X226" Clear Span freeflow barn with a center feed alley. It features 133 stalls for milk cows and 45 stalls for dry cows. A small, 8-stall pen is used for cows requiring treatment or breeding, which can be sorted automatically by the robot.
Eight web cameras allow him to watch anything going on inside the barn, anytime during the day. Finke receives text message alerts from the robot. There are grooming brushes, thermostat sensor-controlled sidewall curtains, and a flush system with sand bedding. Nearly every function in the facility can be managed via a SmartPhone, including the flush valves, doors, curtains, lights and fans.
"If I happen to be out in the field and see a thunderstorm coming in, it takes 30 seconds to get on my phone and log into the app," Finke said.
Nutrition drives system
"Robotic milking performance and cow traffic are a function of good rations," Finke said. "Nothing will show up faster in your system performance than having a ration that isn't balanced correctly. You know real quickly when something isn't clicking."
Finke emphasizes fresh feed in small portions, so cows clean it up. With the Trioliet TMR Automatic Robot Feeder, a TMR is delivered to the milking herd seven times a day.
Finke spends about 10 to 15 minutes each evening filling corn silage and wheatlage bunkers from silos, using a conveyor operated by touch screen or phone; or if the feed is stored in bags, a loader tractor. An alfalfa hay bunker is filled every five to six days; and a bunker for corn gluten is filled once every two weeks. There are two additional small mineral bunkers – one for milking cows and one for dry cows and heifers – and a water station if dry rations need moisture. A two-screw mini TMR mixer mixes the feed, which is delivered to cows on an electrified rail in the barn's center feed alley.
Finke lists essential management practices as keys to success:
• Ensure the TMR is accurate to support good cow traffic and production.
• Receive training to operate systems, up to the point of being a technician able to perform your own maintenance.
• Observe and inspect robotics daily.
• To improve robotic milker performance, make sure cows are clean, with routine udder singeing.
Technology isn't a replacement for cow management, but affords him the opportunity to observe cows a lot more.
"You have to like cows, or it doesn't matter what system you put in," he said.
Although reluctant to discuss finances, Finke said total investment is about $7,000 per cow. As an early adopter of some of the more advanced technologies, some companies were eager to work with him.
Finke thinks the investment is worth it in terms of quality of life, and improved animal health, more lactations per cow, fewer replacement heifers needed, and the highest production he's ever experienced, he said. Finke also reduced labor costs by $30,000 annually, he said.
Investment in technology is also critical to a dairy's sustainability – both as a family business, and as an industry, he said.
"There's nothing worse than seeing dairy farmers who have younger generations get out of the business," he said. "I've had three people within 10 miles of me fold up and quit in the past three-four months, and everyone had a succeeding generation that could have taken over. Most of the people I know who quit don't want the back-breaking labor. My hope is by incorporating these technologies, it will keep the younger generation interested in cows."
Ashwood Dairy, Amsterdam, N.Y.
With growing and fluctuating cow numbers, Ashwood Dairy, Amsterdam, N.Y., turned to technology to provide employee flexibility while enhancing herd management, John Balbian said. Current technologies include Medria HeatPhonem FeedPhone, Vel'Phone and San'Phone, and a Forster-Technik automatic calf feeder.
First and foremost, Ashwood Dairy was looking for an improved heat detection program, while also seeking rumination information. They wanted something easy to use and, with Internet quality challenges, Balbian needed communication accessible via cellular telephone – with the ability to receive regularly scheduled reports and alerts.
Within a year, pregnancy rates improved 2%; services per conception dropped from 2.3 to 2 with increased use of sexed semen; and days open dropped by eight days.
One other area where management benefits were achieved surrounded calving. Vaginal boluses are inserted when cows are moved from far-off to close-up pens (see Page 46). In addition to making day-to-day operations easier, management decisions are more transparent and objective, Balbian said. He considers the technology cost-neutral based on labor savings and reduced inputs. For example, collection of fresh cow data, including daily temperatures and rumination, eliminated the need for drenching all fresh cows, enabling them to focus on cows needing extra attention.
Chad Kieffer, Kiefland Holsteins, Utica, Minn.
Chad Kieffer brings two perspectives to any discussion regarding technology. He's a nutrition consultant for robotic dairies across the country, and part-owner of the 300-cow Kiefland Holsteins, Utica, Minn.
Before the robots, Kiefland milked 270 cows in a double-10 parallel parlor with 6 full-time employees. Today, 310 cows are milked in five Lely A3 robots, while hired labor was reduced 50%. The herd has a 29,000-lb. rolling herd average at 160 days in milk; a 125,000 cells/milliliter somatic cell count; a pregnancy rate of 25% (up from 18%), and a conception rate of 40%. Since using the robots, they've reduced reliance on synchronization programs.
In the robot, they track rumination, daily activity, daily weights, milk fat, protein and conductivity. They complement robot software with DairyComp 305 and DHIA monthly tests. Additional technology includes a Juno feed pusher and concentrate feeder.
A new, and evolving mindset
Robotic milkers take a change in mindset, he said.
"While milk per cow is important, we're trying to maximize pounds per minute, milk per hour and ultimately pounds of milk per robot," Kieffer explained. "At the end of the day, it's about maximizing and being efficient with the robot."
Echoing the sentiments of other dairy producers, Kieffer said getting the ration right is key to maximizing every second in the robot. However, while most robotic milking systems incorporate a single, pelleted feed in the box, he believes taking things to the next level will mean multi-feed options. By using multiple feed types, farmers will be able to manage cows at both ends of the lactation better, getting fresh cows off to a positive energy balance faster, while keeping late-lactation cows from becoming over-conditioned.
One other hint to improve robot performance: Kiefland installed a concentrate feeder in the pre-fresh heifer pen. That trains heifers to put their head in a feed trough, making the transition to a robot one-step easier.
Nate Elzinga, Daybreak Dairy LLC, Zeeland, Mich.
Nate Elzinga farms with his wife and four children, in partnership with his father (Dan), brother (Paul) and using five full-time employees. They installed Afimilk equipment in 2009. Today, they have 250 registered Holsteins and 200 replacements, with a RHA of 31,036 lbs. milk, 1,124 lbs. butterfat, and 956 lbs. of protein.
"Technology aids – but does not replace cow management," Elzinga said. "You must know the cow first. Once you know the cow, you can understand what you're looking at on the computer screen. The technology can be your best friend. Then you can use it to fine-tune your herd, making every stall more profitable."
Technology has allowed him to "cherry pick" when managing the dairy's hybrid reproduction program, combining synchronization with identifying heats through activity monitoring. They also use genomics for genetic selection.
"I used almost all heat synchronization before, but I've been working toward heat detection with activity, trying to dial in that timing of insemination to improve fertility," he said. The annual pregnancy rate averages 25-30%. Heifer age at first calving is an early 20 months.
"The more you improve your herd with technology, the faster it speeds up," Elzinga said. "You have more replacements, so you increase your genetic turnover. You have more voluntary culls, and possibly more animals to sell to other people. That leads to more production per stall, and less waste on heifers."
Elzinga said using automated calf feeders also is a good first step, but management carries on.
"You can do the best job in the world getting them to 8 weeks of age, but if you don't follow through in the months to come through breeding and all the way to calving, you can lose that efficiency very quickly."
Westvale View Dairy, Nashville, Mich.
Growth and vertical integration drove the decision to add technology at Westvale View Dairy LLC, a family operation run by Doug Westendorp, his wife Louisa and their sons, Carlyle, Troy, Eric and Levi.
"Our old barn and parlor were 42 years old and needed major remodeling," Carlyle Westendorp said. "One of our goals of installing robots was to expand and not have to hire employees. We are all family labor, and wanted to keep it that way."
Milking 90 cows 3X in a double-8 parlor, Westvale transitioned to a four-robot, Lely 4A system in fall 2012. With two brothers coming home to join the dairy, and the need for more milk to serve their on-farm creamery, Mooville Creamery, they grew the herd to 220 cows.
Cows are now housed in a six-row, 228-stall freestall barn with center feed alley. Two-year-olds have 48-inch stalls; mature cows have 52-inch stalls. The robots are on the outside walls of the barn, in the middle of each pen.
Other technology used on the farm includes SCR rumination/activity monitoring, a Lely feed pusher and automatic calf feeder. They recently installed variable-speed fans for cow cooling.
"The robots have changed the way I manage the farm," he said. "The biggest change is in the feeding of cows. It is very important that this is understood by everybody involved. If your nutritionist isn't on board, it isn't going to work. That was our biggest battle."
One of the most exciting things about tracking rumination is improved reproduction, Carlyle said. Pregnancy rates pre-robot averaged 14%-16%; it's now at 26%. In addition, by tracking duration of heat cycles and logging time of breeding, they've determined the optimum time to breed to achieve the highest conception rates.
Rumination also is becoming an early indicator of mastitis.
"One thing I didn't know was how painful mastitis is for a cow," Carlyle said. "Rumination crashes before anything else shows up."