If you’ve ever gone to buy a new cell phone, the choice of phones, options, apps and calling plans can make your head hurt within minutes of entering any store.
That mind numbing exercise, which I endure every few years with as much enthusiasm as a root canal, gives just a glimpse of what dairy farmers are up against as they search, compare and price new technologies for their farms.
The 2015 Precision Dairy Conference, held in Rochester, Minn. June 24 and 25, was a good reminder of that. The Conference, organized by the University of Minnesota and the University of Kentucky, had about 40 sponsors and venders, displaying products ranging from cow activity monitors to robotic milkers to individual cow methane detectors.
Ten dairy farmers spoke, sharing what they’ve learned as they’ve adopted these new technologies. Since these producer presentations were sponsored by companies whose products the farmers were using, it’s a safe bet the farms were the very best at adopting that particular tech product. Nonetheless, it’s clear these products have moved beyond prototypes and first users to mainstream application:
• Tony Louters, Merced, Calif. was having difficulty with his transition cows. Too many cows were calving early, and 25% to 30% had retained placentas (RPs). Early culling of these cows was occurring much too frequently. Louters started fitting his cows with SCR Heatime activity/rumination monitors a year ago. By last December, he had monitors on every cow. He soon noticed that rumination activity dropped each time he vaccinated. Cows returned to normal rumination within a day or so. But that suggested vaccinating cows three weeks before calving (and moving them into the pre-fresh pen at the same time) might be a problem. He now vaccinates cows four weeks before calving, waits a week and then moves them to the pre-fresh group. RPs have dropped to 5%, and early culling is below 5%.
• Chad Kieffer, Utica, Minn., says high milk production (100 lb./cow/day), high throughput and good milk quality all can be achieved with robotic milking. Kieffer is a part owner of his family’s 300-cow dairy that has a rolling herd average of 29,000 lb. The Kieffer’s milk with five Lely robots. Nutrition is key. “Cows go to the robot to eat,” he says. Kieffer, who is also a nutrition consultant, says he balances the partially-mixed rations for at least 15 lb. of grain below the bulk tank average. That keeps cows hungry and eager to visit the robot. He’s also encouraging high producing robot herds to offer two (or more) types of energy pellet through the robot to target different stages of lactation.
• Sander Penterman, Thorp, Wis., told vendors he would use activity/rumination monitors on cows if he could reduce reproductive hormone use by half and have the same or better pregnancy rate. Penterman emigrated from the Netherlands in 1999, started his own dairy three years later and now milks 850 cows with his wife and eight employees. He installed AGIS CowManager SensOor ear tags and software three years ago. The software provides optimal time to breed alerts, and has more than delivered on Penterman’s original goals. His heat detection rate has jumped to 60% (up from 50%), preg rates have climbed to 24% (from 22%) and calving interval has fallen to 390 days (from 410). Hormone injections have fallen 90%.
What these examples tell me is that the right technology in the right hands works. Unfortunately, there’s still that deer-in-the-headlights look when sorting through all these options.
Jeff Bewley, an Extension dairy specialist, says you should approach buying dairy technology much like you’d buy your next cell phone. He’s come up with a check list of six questions (read them here) to ask before signing that purchase order. The list won’t make your selection task easy, but it is a place to start.