Dairy farmers know more about dairy cows today than generations before them. Why? The adoption of technology on farms is a primary reason.
Most farmers use data from innovative technologies to understand the biology behind their dairy herds to make better decisions and become more efficient.
“With data, we are learning that our cows are changing over time and are improving their production, so farmers can’t use data from 10 years ago to make decisions today because we had different animals back then along with different technologies and nutrition,” says Veridiana Daley, Purina Mills senior researcher of adult dairy cows.
According to a recent Association of Equipment Manufacturers report, advancing innovative technology with dairy cow genetics and automated management systems on farms are the most significant contributing factors in reducing the dairy industry’s carbon footprint, equivalent to taking 4 million cars off the road.
The report also found that today’s dairy herd produces four times as much as the global average, with 16 million fewer cows. In addition, farmers’ adoption of technology has saved enough water to supply New York City for two years.
“Dairy farming can be complex. Farmers are under a lot of stress, time crunches, and tight profit margins. The goal of using technology is to help farmers make better decisions, find the bottlenecks of their operation, and be more profitable at the end of the day,” says Alex Tebbe, a dairy technical specialist with Purina.
The creation of a high-grade dairy cow
Genomic testing and genetic selection for desirable traits such as milk yield have helped farmers create more productive dairy cows.
Most dairies are testing heifer calves to see which ones will genetically make suitable replacements in their herd. The tests show the genetic potential of milk production, says David Erf, senior veterinarian of dairy technical services with Zoetis.
“When we genomic test calves, it can predict their future,” says Erf. “The goal is to find which animals will be more profitable for dairies.”
Genetic testing and selection allow farmers to reduce the number of cows that are not cost-effective.
“Testing allows us to genetically find more of those trouble-free cows that are good at production, good at reproduction, and in good health because a cow that can excel in those three areas, she’s going to be a profitable cow for any farm,” Erf says.
Farmers have more efficient use of time and resources
Today, the most extensive use of technology on dairy farms is a robotic milking system, which has revolutionized the milking parlor.
A robotic milking system can bring more flexibility to dairy farmers and allow them to focus on other tasks, such as crop work, because they are no longer tied to a cow, says Suzanne Meck, chief operations officer of AMS Galaxy USA, a provider of precision dairy farming equipment.
In a robotic milking system, a sensor detects the cows present and automatically cleans the cows’ teats before and after attaching the milker. In addition, the system will collect data from a cow’s collar – which is much like a Fitbit device for humans — to track her milking time, pounds of milk produced, and rumination.
“Cows can milk themselves around the clock. So maybe you don’t have to worry about getting up at the crack of dawn the next morning to start chores,” says Meck.
In most cases, a robotic or automatic milking system can also mean that cows spend more time in the barn. According to Meck, that can make it challenging for farmers to get into barns to clean out pens and provide fresh bedding.
However, there are automated cleaning systems such as a flush system, scrapers, and robotic manure collectors that drag through the barn and take manure to a deposit area, says Meck.
“Automated equipment does a good job because it’s running around the clock,” she adds.
Most manure management systems also have water-saving processes and water use tracking features to help farmers make better decisions with water resources.
Farms are also updating to automated bedding systems, which help reduce bedding waste by putting out small qualities throughout the day. In addition, automated bedding improves cow health and comfort, says Meck.
“This type of automation allows the farmer to bed their cows three to four times a day, as opposed to once or twice a week the manual way,” adds Meck. “The cows also like having that fresh bedding frequently.”
Using data from technology to better management decisions
Today, one cow can create more than 2 billion data points over her lifetime. According to Daley, most dairy farms are gathering physical data points from various software or monitoring technologies that collect more than a hundred types of information.
Farms at a more fundamental level with herds that only do Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) tests once a month are still gathering five to 10 data points on their cows monthly, adds Tebbe.
However, measuring and comparing data to find bottlenecks on a farm can be difficult when there is no easy way to integrate the data from the various technologies on a farm. Tebbe says that’s where Addie, a Purina dairy record analysis program, comes in. It collects data from all the management software technology being used on the farm and creates a report with actionable insights producers can use to increase economic potential.
“Farms that have embraced technology can have four or six different software systems collecting all their data. In the way Purina has built Addie, the system integrates data from these software systems, in an easy-to understand form, allowing us start to understand the whole picture of the farm,” says Tebbe.
“Addie is a tool or technology that is all about the cows,” adds Daley.
In using the collected data, farmers look for ways to be more efficient with their resources, such as creating more milk production with less feed or detecting illness earlier in cows before it affects their well-being.
“Farmers are curious individuals. They always want to know more, and they ask great questions, so we can take their questions and transform their data to get the answers they need to succeed,” adds Tebbe.