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How dairy cow monitoring systems benefit the bottom line

Dairy cow monitoring is serious business at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee, Wisconsin.

The 6,250 milking cows at one of the two farms are outfitted with a monitoring collar as soon as they reach the farm and carry that monitor throughout their time on the farm. These monitors collect data 24 hours a day, seven days a week, providing invaluable information that helps the farm better manage the herd.

“It’s an incredibly valuable tool for us,” says Chris Szydel, dairy herd manager for Pagel’s. “Instead of looking for animals that might need attention, the computer comes up with a list and identifies those animals. The response time with the system is the fastest way that we can identify those animals.”

Herd monitoring systems have been a part of some operations for several decades, but the technology is getting smarter, providing loads of specific information that may not be readily apparent upon visual inspection of the animal.

As the technology advances, data provides even more insight into the daily life of a cow and what producers can do to make that animal more productive.

Heat detection systems were the first significant uses of remote monitoring systems. Because of the critical nature of ensuring efficient breeding, usage dramatically increased.

Today, monitoring has become more precise, gauging everything from rumination time, respiration, eating time, inactivity, and location.

Leave Them Alone

While data from cow monitoring systems can help identify stressed cows, perhaps the system’s most prominent feature is that it identifies animals that don’t need attention.

“This is a pivotal technology for the 3% to 5% of animals who need our attention,” says Brandt Kreuscher, dairy business development manager for Allflex Livestock Intelligence. “But the heart of monitoring systems and artificial intelligence is to leave 95% of the animals alone to go about their daily business without human interaction.”

The broader impact is to not handle animals that don’t need any assistance.

“The bottom line is that there is very little that you can do to increase production in a healthy animal by unnecessarily getting them out of their daily routines,” Kreuscher says. “A lot of the gains we see in herd health and production is in not handling the healthy cow,” he adds. “Where we really see this issue come to light is in the transition period. If we are doing intensive things like locking them up to take temperatures or run urine ketosis strips, soon we have the cows locked up for a considerable amount of time each day.”

Letting cows be cows is why cow location features are helpful.

“The herd manager can walk straight into a pen and find the one cow that needs assistance, without disrupting the rest of the cows’ routine,” says Tera Baker, marketing manager for Nedap.

Monitoring identifies those cows that need assistance in the fresh pen, while leaving the remaining cows alone. Less handling of fresh cows translates to production throughout the lactation period, which means more milk.

“Monitoring systems provide information on the cow 24-7, and present the producer with actionable insights on cows that need attention,” says Gerard Griffioen, founder of CowManager. “It also means there are cows that are not on the list. You have total control of your herd with detailed, classified information.”

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Monitoring systems like CowManager provide information on a cow 24/7 and present the producer with actionable insights on cows. 

Collecting Data, Using Data

The amount of data that can be collected from the cow can be overwhelming. An integral part of any cow monitoring system is the number crunching, where that information is turned into actionable items.

“There is a lot of data at your fingertips, but it can take a lot of work to really study the data and understand what’s happening to the cow, or to the group,” says Stephanie Aves-Schroeder, Waikato Milking Systems. She praises the monitoring system’s ability to consistently provide actionable items.

“For example, if you have a protocol in place when a cow shows a drop in rumination time, you get immediate feedback. That is invaluable information that can be acted upon before the cow starts outwardly showing signs of a problem,” AvesSchroeder says.

Several companies offer systems to provide cow monitoring. While the data being generated needs to provide good information, equally important is the hardware, because the monitoring system’s sensors are subjected to harsh conditions.

“The data side of cow monitoring grabs a lot of attention, but the hardware side is really important,” Baker says. “I think this is something that a lot of producers end up glossing over. Because at the end of the day, whatever technology you go with has to be applied to every single cow. If the sensor can’t withstand the environment on the farm, you end up spending time replacing the unit. More critical is that you lose valuable data.”

The system also must be integrated into what you want to do.

“If you are running a milking system that you want to sort cows based on who is in heat that day, you want to make sure your sensors on the cows are going to work with the sorting system,” Baker says. “If you don’t have the right partners involved, implementation can be very cumbersome, potentially inaccurate, or may not work at all.”

Impact on the Bottom Line

Monitoring systems benefit a farm’s bottom line in several ways. Cows that stay healthy and get bred back in a timely manner are going to be more profitable. The monitoring systems also contribute to reduced labor costs.

In addition, a reduction in antibiotic use and the farm’s overall sustainability help producers.

“Healthier herds mean lower disease pressure and lower antibiotic use,” says Jason Osterstock, vice president of precision animal health for Zoetis. “The reduction in antibiotics means that milk stays in the tank, and the cow stays in the herd. That also means increased efficiencies, increased sustainability metrics, increased productivity, and increased profitability.”

Pagel’s Ponderosa introduced its monitoring system in 2019.

“We’ve continued to improve on the system,” Szydel says, “and there are still a lot of untapped resources that I believe the system can supply moving forward. We are still finding opportunities. I never could have expected how much of an impact our cow monitoring system has had on our operation.”

One key benefit noted by Szydel is in the breeding program. Pagel’s has moved away from a headlock system.

“And the system is finding more cows in heat than our tail painting,” Szydel says. “We went from a 65% insemination rate with our old program to a 77% insemination rate. So there are more pregnancies, fewer pregnancy checks, and fewer vet checks. That saves time, labor, and makes us much more efficient.”

There has also been a significant decrease in hormone usage by finding more cows showing natural heats. Pagel’s uses the same system to monitor two dairies that are 5 miles apart.

“Data transfers between the two dairies, and we can monitor all the cows,” Szydel says. “This helps with efficiencies.” Szydel is now using the monitoring system to look at heat stress. “We are focusing on how to better manage cows when it’s warm outside,” he says. “We want to use what the monitors are telling us and how we can adjust our cooling systems in the barn, whether it be in the holding area or out in the pen. If there’s a cow, or group of cows, experiencing heat stress, we are able to identify the issue and work to correct it.”

The Future

Cow monitoring systems continue to improve and provide even more insight. Osterstock draws an analogy to the technology in crop science.

“We’re all familiar with the journey of precision ag, and how we’ve evolved from the collection of data to the point to where now it’s very prescriptive, down to the square foot,” he says. “To some extent, those decisions are now being done autonomously. In dairy cattle production, I think we’re going to see a similar journey where we are moving from the herd to the individual animal.”

The data will be provided to implement an exact strategy to optimize the cow’s genetic potential.

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