Procedural drift happens. Here’s how to identify potential break-downs before problems appear.
By Shane St. Cyr, SCR Dairy Field Support Manager
You’ve carefully designed and outlined standard operating procedures (SOPs) on your dairy to ensure continuity of routine cow care and management. Not only do these SOPs help employees know what to do and when to do it, but they also support the consistency that animals crave.
Yet sometimes SOPs fail, or people do not follow them as they should.
What if you had a way to identify these challenges with SOP implementation before cow health challenges arise? Predictive technologies like activity and rumination monitoring can fulfill this need. This information helps pinpoint the sources of issues and enables dairies to address the “human factor” in protocol errors during the investigation process.
For more and more dairies, this actionable data from time-tested, proven leaders in this information-gathering realm has successfully supported and replaced more subjective measures of cow health and activity monitoring. Predictive information also helps target group and herd-wide health, nutrition, reproductive and feeding programs to keep them on track.
Establish Base Lines
The first step is to establish a baseline of cow performance. This is quickly determined by the system during the first week of technology adoption. Continuously recorded data builds a record for each animal, which can then be used to assess individual animal, group and herd performance.
Regardless, when rumination time deviates more than what’s typical for a herd, group or cow, managers know it’s time to check on what’s going on within the operation.
Initiate Investigations and Interventions
While most cows spend about eight hours or so (450 – 550 minutes) ruminating each day, it’s not the total number that’s critically important to track. It’s the variability in your herd’s rumination time that should be monitored and used to assess potential challenges—and solutions. You can track individual animals, groups or pens and the entire herd to obtain a wide-scale view of what’s happening on your operation.
When rumination variations occur outside your herd “norm” and you need to investigate the cause, begin with the easiest questions first. For instance, when exploring whether a nutrition challenge is causing an increase in health problems, ask:
- Is the mixer working properly?
- Is the feed added properly to the mixer and are correct mixing times being observed?
- Is the feed delivered timely, in the right location and in sufficient quantities?
- Is the milking schedule on time allowing for access to feed at a routine time?
- Is sorting occurring?
Once you’ve addressed these angles, then it’s time to explore areas like feed source consistency, ration ingredients, heat abatement, cow flow, grouping strategies and other feed and management-related factors.
Nutritionists who have used rumination data say the tool is one more way to help them keep track of what actually happens in cows, noting the information helps significantly shorten the lag time between when a nutritional problem crops up and when issues with health or performance are identified. The data can be used to isolate problems as far as 24 to 36 hours in advance of when physical symptoms appear or there is a drop in milk production.
The data also help identify opportunities to improve performance for specific groups.
For example, these charts show how much rumination, and ultimately cow health and productivity, can be improved by segregating first-lactation cows from older cows in the herd.
After regrouping, the first-lactation cows added more than an hour of rumination time as well as improving the rumination consistency within the group. The additional rumination time is important because rumination is critical for saliva production—which impacts the rumen’s buffering capacity. For example, research1 shows that increasing rumination time by about two hours generates more than 9 gal. of saliva (equivalent to about 200 grams per day of bicarbonate) that the cow can use to better buffer the ration she receives.
Monitor Protocol Compliance
A Midwest dairy recently used rumination data to track down the sources of a strange pattern of variation.
The dairy maintained a strong nutrition program, which was overseen by a member of the farm’s management team. Everyone who was part of the feeding program had been trained to follow established protocols and had been taught the reason these protocols were in place.
However, the herd experienced an unexplained dip in rumination time of about 75 minutes or so every Wednesday. The scenario went on for a number of weeks. Forages were tested, protocols examined and cow routines were checked for disruption, but no clear answers emerged.
Then one week, the primary feeder switched his day off from Wednesday to Thursday.
Herd rumination time remained steady on Wednesday. However, rumination time on Thursday took a 75-minute drop, then rose back to normal levels on Friday.
The problem wasn’t with the forages or the cows or the protocols. It was slight changes in feeding techniques when the primary feeder was away from the dairy.
Despite training, procedural drift had crept in. Whether intentional or not, the relief feeder did things slightly differently from what occurred the other six days of the week. The differences could not be detected by looking at the ration, but they were enough to cause a rumination change.
The dairy re-emphasized to relief feeding personnel the importance of precise protocol compliance, and rumination levels remained steady regardless of who was mixing the feed. The dairy was able to demonstrate the importance of proper feeding management to key personnel and had proof as to the impact of small differences in procedures.
Ultimately, the technology consistently measures cow rumination performance 24 hours a day, seven days a week so that users can interpret this information to take needed action and better manage all aspects of their herd.
Rumination monitoring data doesn’t replace key personnel, but it can provide greater peace of mind and help everyone be more efficient with their time and resources while keeping SOPs effective.
1 Krawczel PD, Klaiber LB, Butzler RE, Klaiber LM, Dann HM, Mooney CS, Grant RJ. Short-term increases in stocking density affect the lying and social behavior, but not the productivity, of lactating Holstein dairy cows. J Dairy Sci. 95:4298-4308. 2012.