Precision decisions

Precision dairy technology is rapidly changing the dynamics of the industry. There are many technologies available, but selecting the right type of precision equipment to invest in can be a difficult choice.

At the Precision Dairy Conference in Rochester, Minn., at the end of June, the overlying theme was focusing back on the individual cow and finding the right tools for modern dairies.

Henk Hogeveen, faculty of veterinary medicine at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, related that during the time of hand milking and small herd sizes, it was easy to focus on the management of each individual cow.

"However, something that is happening all over the world is the number of farms is decreasing and the farm size is increasing," said Hogeveen.

This has resulted in an increased amount of cows per farm worker, making management responsibilities more difficult.

"That means we have an increased need for efficiency and, until now, that increased need for efficiency was done by managing cows in groups," stated Hogeveen. "You couldn't look at the individual cow anymore so we kept cows in groups and management was equal for all groups."

Small producers who have invested in labor-saving devices like automatic milkers, automatic calf feeders, activity monitors and robotic feed pushers are now being placed on an even playing field with large operations that haven't invested in technology.

"That's the big thing with precision dairy is that you can go back to the individual cow, even in big herds," said Hogeveen.

Echoing those sentiments during his opening presentation of the conference was Jeffery Bewley, extension specialist with the University of Kentucky.

"We're really focusing on individual-cow management so we can improve animal health, animal performance and animal reproductive management. Hopefully, this information helps us to make more timely and informed decisions about how we manage the animals that we work with," said Bewley.

Redefining the dairy

While the technology is moving the focus back to the individual cow, what exactly is precision dairy?

Bewley defined precision dairy as, "the use of automated or mechanized technologies towards refinement of dairy management processes or information collection."

"It's broader than just robotic milking. It's broader than just estrus detection technologies. It's broader than just feed-management technology. It encompasses all of these things," stated Bewley.

Technological advances have been happening throughout the world at an alarming rate. Cellular telephones have progressed from heavy, cumbersome equipment with poor reception into sleek, handy devices with as much computing power as a laptop. Cars have become increasingly automated and feature more monitors than drivers can keep their eyes on.

Even in other areas of agriculture, technology has changed the way business is done. Tractors can now drive themselves within inches of where they need to be.

Field-mapping has improved crop yields across the country, while reducing cost. The dairy industry is closing in on these types of industry-wide changes.

"It's amazing the technologies that have been developed, the innovations that have been implemented in the dairy industry in this area of precision dairy farming. It's clear as we look forward that we are getting a

glimpse into the future of what the dairy industry is going to look like in 2020, in 2030 and beyond. No doubt,

we are in a technological transformation within the dairy industry," said Bewley.

Improving lifestyle and reducing labor

Besides improving cow production, precision technology has also altered the lifestyle of producers.

"In my role as an extension specialist, I'm not just worried about the wellbeing of the cow, but I'm also worried about the farmers. I think sometimes we don't talk about farmer well-being, but it's really important," said Bewley.

For dairy producer Chad Kieffer, who hosted a pre-conference tour at his farm in Utica, Minn., an improved social life and having more time with the family were great reasons to invest in precision dairy tools.

"It's made more flexibility for us. We don't have to be there at set times if we've got something going on," said Kieffer.

At Kiefland Holsteins, there are five robotic milkers with an activity-monitoring system to detect estrus and an automatic feed pusher for the 280-cow dairy.

Flexibility has allowed the farm to focus on other areas than milking during a typical day. For instance, during a recent hay cutting, Kieffer was able to stay in the field instead of heading back to the barn for a 5 p.m. milking.

After adopting these systems, Kieffer hired less help and moved a person to the night shift to better manage cows.

"It's reduced our calls in the middle of the night, which has helped quite a bit as far as labor goes," said Kieffer.

Overall, there has been a 40 percent reduction in labor at Kiefland Holsteins since adding these technologies. In 2009, before the robotic milkers were installed the cost of labor was $2.22/cwt. of milk, then in 2012 it moved down to $1.89/ cwt., and for this year the farm is at $1.49/cwt.

Failure breeds success

For Mason Dixon Farms in Gettysburg, Pa., the motto has been, "success is optional, change is inevitable," and as the first farm to receive the Innovative Dairyman of the Year award in 1999, they've been very adept at evolving.

"The only way to bring about that change… is to be bold and try new things, make changes," said co-owner Doyle Waybright during his presentation. Mason Dixon Farms has been adept at pursing precision technologies.

Back in 2000, Waybright's brothers went to Germany to look at a forage harvester, but they also saw some robotic units while visiting farms. After that experience and another visit to Europe, the farm jumped into robotic milking with a single unit in 2001 to experiment with for a few years. Then, in 2005, Mason Dixon Farms furthered its commitment to robotics with a barn that then housed 10 units. Now, Waybright is milking 1,050 cows with 20 robots.

Waybright relates that producers should, "Dare to succeed or even dare to fail. Success only comes about by the willingness to fail."

Looking forward

Precision dairy has put more emphasis back on the cow, helping increase productivity and efficiency which, in turn, has made life easier on farmers, but it's not all roses.

"It's absolutely amazing some of these advancements, and some of them we should be a little skeptical of because they probably don't do everything that we think or hope that they will do," said Bewley.

It also can be overwhelming for producers to receive all of this data after years of using visual indicators to make management decisions. For instance, with heart rate monitoring, it is interesting to have that data, but Bewley questions how useful is it.

"In reality, I think what we need to do is take a bit more of a balanced approach towards precision dairy technology," said Bewley.

Researching and working with these technologies has given Bewley some "gray hairs," but working with farmers has helped him gain a better perspective of actually applying those tools to practical purposes.

Farms like Kiefland Holsteins and Mason Dixon Farms have effectively utilized these technologies. Both will continue moving forward in implementing these systems to aid in the success of their farms.

"New technologies are sustainable for dairy farms," Waybright says.

"The use of cutting-edge technologies can be profitable for a dairy farm. It takes patience and perseverance to find ways to be successful at the use of them," he concludes.



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