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What is precision dairying?

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 30 April 2013

Precision dairy farming is a recently coined phrase. Chances are you may have heard it; you may even use a precision dairy technology – but do you know what it means, and better yet, what it can do for your dairy?

Jeffrey Bewley from the University of Kentucky describes precision dairy farming as “the use of technologies to measure physiological, behavioral and production indicators on individual animals to improve management strategies and farm performance.”

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Others take it beyond animal technologies to include automated calf feeders and feed-measuring technologies.

Precision dairying is based on the desire to manage individual cows within a group setting.

One example that dates back 20 to 30 years is obtaining individual milk weights. Many more monitoring methods have come online as of late.

“The dairy industry has seen a large increase in new technologies in the last five years, and it’s really taken off in the last couple of years,” Bewley says.

Precision dairy technologies have been developed to collect milk yield and component data; measure somatic cell count; track activity, resting and lying behavior; detect estrus and lameness; monitor rumination and feeding behavior; monitor bodyweight, rumen pH, heart rate and temperature; collect greenhouse gas emissions and send out GPS locations.

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Plus, there are many products still in research and development. Bewley says companies are just scratching the surface with in-line milk sampling. He also anticipates we will see more in terms of image analysis for body condition and locomotion scoring, as well as thermography detection.

“Precision dairy farming has the potential to really improve the way we manage animals,” Bewley says. “It has the potential to improve the life of the cow and the life of the dairy farmer.”

He cites benefits of improved animal health and well-being, increased efficiency, reduced costs and improved product quality.

“It’s not for everyone,” Bewley notes. “Those who will benefit most are producers who have a desire to change.”

To maximize the benefits of precision technologies, most dairy producers will need to change the way the dairy is managed and decisions are made.

Dairy producers with good cow sense are more likely to optimize precision dairy farming as they can pair what the data shows with their own observations, Bewley says.

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Adoption of this technology doesn’t need to be dependent on the size of the dairy or the age of the dairy producer.

A producer’s level of risk aversion will determine how soon they will adopt these technologies. There’s no need to be the first one to test a product, but always waiting for the newest technology to be released doesn’t help either.

Bewley likens not adopting precision dairy tools to not buying a computer or a cell phone for fear the current model will be replaced. “Something will always be better than whatever you picked up two years ago,” he says.

The best advice he can give producers deciding to embrace precision dairy farming is to define the needs of their specific farm. Some dairies could use help with estrus detection, while others would find more benefit in a mastitis detection tool.

Producers also need to demonstrate that the purchase will be economical for the farm.

“Whether or not it provides an economic benefit depends on each individual dairy,” Bewley says.

He doesn’t recommend using precision dairy technologies just to obtain information. The information needs to be used for decision-making to make an impact for the farm.

“It’s easy to get into information overload,” Bewley says.

Plenty of questions remain as to what should be done with this added information. In time it will be defined through research as well as practical experience.

Thus far, it is easy to conclude which action to take with information from heat detection systems. That is why those technologies have taken off so well, he says.

It is harder to chart the proper course of action when receiving an early alert two weeks prior to seeing any clinical signs for mastitis – should you treat immediately or wait to see if the cow can get rid of the infection without intervention?

Regardless, more and more producers are adopting one or more forms of precision dairy technology. Bewley expects the majority of U.S. dairies will at some point employ precision dairying. PD

To learn more about precision dairy farming, make plans to attend the first-ever U.S. Precision Dairy Conference and Expo , June 25-27, in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Karen Lee

Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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