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Roundtable: How do you use activity monitoring?

PD Editor Dario Martinez Published on 28 December 2011

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For the past several issues, Progressive Dairyman has been individually reviewing commercially available activity monitoring systems.



In the following article, we ask users of these systems to describe and rate how the systems have changed their reproductive management.

Select Detect
Craig Goeser, a producer from Plymouth, Wisconsin, has had the Select Detect heat detection system on his farm for more than a year. He uses the system to monitor the heat activity of his cows as well monitoring those cows that are potentially sick or have foot problems.

Farm Bio
Craig Goeser
Farm name:
Goeser Dairy, LLC
Plymouth, Wisconsin
# of milking cows:
1,100 milking and dry
Previous heat detection system:
Tail chalking and Ovsynch
Date installed:
August 24, 2010

How many units do you have? How many cows does your system accommodate?
Currently, we have the tags on about 400 cows.

On a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being very easy), how easy to use and decipher is the system’s software data-readout?
5. This system is very easy to use.


Afimilk System
Brent Simon and his family own and operate an 800-cow dairy in Westphalia, Michigan. He explains that his family invested in the Afimilk system during the same time when their operation was expanding and doubling its herd size. He considers this activity monitoring system one of the farm’s most reliable employees.

Farm Bio
Producer: Brent Simon
Farm name: Simon Dairy
Location: Westphalia, Michigan
# of milking cows: 800 milking and dry cows
Previous heat detection system: Tail chalking and Ovsynch
Installed: 2006
Cost: $100,000

How many units do you have? How many cows does your system accommodate?
Every single milking cow has a pedometer. They are removed at dryoff. We clean them up and then the cow will get a new one about two days after she calves.

On a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being very easy), how easy to use and decipher is the system’s software data-readout?
3. I can get what I need off of the program. I’m very comfortable with the information I take from it, but there is way more information than I even know what to do with. It’s a user-friendly program though. Once you get the hang of it, it isn’t too bad.

Dairy Management System 21
Jerry Noble, a dairy producer from southern Oregon, installed the activity system marketed by GEA Farm Technologies on his dairy nearly a year ago. He explains that using the activity monitoring system for heat detection purposes was not his original plan upon purchasing the system, but became quickly amazed at how well the system was able to catch cows in heat.

Farm Bio
Producer: Jerry Noble
Farm name: Noble Dairy
Location: Grants Pass, Oregon
# of milking cows: 675 milking cows, 780 cows total
Previous heat detection system: We used visual observation. We observed cows in standing heat.
Installed: January 2010


How many units do you have? How many cows does your system accommodate?
Every cow on the farm has a responder.

On a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being very easy), how easy to use and decipher is the system’s software data-readout?
I question whether it could be any better. I understand that everything could be better, but in the practicalities of life I don’t know how you could do better with this system.

ai24 SCR HR-Tag
Joe Stewart, a dairy producer from Nampa, Idaho, has had activity monitoring systems on his cows since 2006 to help detect heat in his herd. He is currently testing the ai24 SCR HR-Tag, but still uses this tag’s forerunner, the H-Tag on a majority of the herd.

Farm Bio
Producer: Joe Stewart
Farm name: Stewart Farms, Inc.
Location: Nampa, Idaho
# of milking cows: 430-cow herd
Previous heat detection system: I was tail chalking, teaching outside personnel to look for visual signs of heat and giving prostaglandin to anestrous cows. Primary detection was tail chalking.
Installed: 2006

How many units do you have? How many cows does your system accommodate? Do you have these units on every cow?
I’ve always had at least 50 percent of my cows covered. I’ve done some other management and herd size changes, so it’s actually currently greater, but 50 percent was always the target.

On a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being very easy), how easy to use and decipher is the system’s software data-readout?
As long as you have knowledge of breeding and some experience, it is a 5. It is very easy to differentiate what’s going on.

Legend Heat Detection System
Dean Matheson, a dairy producer from Ontario, Canada, has had the Legend Heat Detection System on his farm close to 10 months. Although he does see some room for improvement, he says he has been surprised with how well the system has worked for his operation.

Farm Bio
Producer: Dean Matheson
Farm name: Lochalsh Holsteins
Location: Embro, Ontario, Canada
# of milking cows: 140-cow herd
Previous heat detection system: We were using a Presynch-Ovsynch program.
Installed: February 2010
Cost: $12,000

How many units do you have?
On our 140 cows, we have 60 tags. We put the tags on when a cow freshens and take them off when she is confirmed pregnant.

On a scale of 1 to 5 (5 = Very easy), how easy to use and decipher is the system’s software data-readout?
4. It could always be better, but as far as being able to understand the display and read it, I would give the system a 4. I find it very easy to use.

Q. Why did you decide to use an activity monitoring system on your farm?

GOESER: I decide to use this system because it would help cut cost and improve efficiency on the farm.

SIMON: A few years ago, we doubled the size of our milking herd and we didn’t add any labor. So, we felt like we needed to use the technology that was available to basically give us another employee without having to actually hire someone. We needed another tool to use to be able to use the same amount of labor and double the size of our herd.

NOBLE: Really, I put the responders (tags) on to help sort cows with automatic sort gates. They told me the system had this feature that could catch cows in heat. I was very skeptical and thought it was highly overrated. I’ve been doing this [dairying] since 1954 so I knew how difficult it was to catch cows in heat. However, we started using it and I have just been amazed with how accurate it is.

STEWART: The concept that I can watch the cows 24 hours a day had great appeal, and I believed they were getting better technology to where they could accurately detect heat. And so, after looking at some others, I thought they were really onto something with these, and I didn’t want to gravitate toward a sync program. That didn’t fit my style of management.

MATHESON: Initially, we wanted to bring down our cost – our vet cost specifically. The way we were running our needling (hormone treatment) program, the vet came every week because we were on a weekly program rather than a biweekly program. When we switched, we were able to have him come every two weeks.

Q. How frequently do you collect data from cows to detect onset of estrus?

GOESER: Daily. The A.I. technician arrives at the farm, locks the cows in and then checks the system and before going back out to breed them.

SIMON: We collect data at every milking. So three times a day the information is sent from the parlor to the herdsman’s computer.

NOBLE: We use it every morning. We come in every morning and pull up cows on the computer and then select cows to be sorted as they leave the milking parlor.

STEWART: The system collects it automatically. We check it once a day for insemination, so we do one-time-a-day breeding. It’s a very simple process. We go to the office. The heat detect takes us 10 minutes to do. I look at the report and make the decision, and then we go out and find the animals and breed them.

MATHESON: I probably check it three or four times a day. Because the system is consistently updating itself, we are able to check cows before every milking. When a cow comes in, we can sort her off to the breeding pen as she leaves the parlor.

Q. What challenges have you encountered while using your system?

GOESER: I haven’t had any challenges since I installed the system. Everything is going very well.

SIMON: One challenge was getting used to the sensitivity of the activity monitoring. By sensitivity on the activity, I mean understanding at exactly what point the cow actually peaked in the activity, because we want her inseminated before she ovulates. Knowing the right percent increase in her activity is probably the hardest thing to try to pinpoint. We have made adjustments on sensitivity of the activity to be able to find that.

NOBLE: I haven’t had any challenges with the responders. In fact, the reason I put the system in, in the first place, was for the sort gate and I’ve had more mechanical problems with that than the responders doing their job.

STEWART: When the product first started, some of the cows would break or wear things out, and since that time, the company has upgraded the product, and it’s much more durable. So that’s been addressed.

It’s like any program; I don’t care if it’s this technology or Ovsynch, if you don’t manage it well, then it can fail. The key is the right personnel to place collars, and then collect them back up because if workers put the wrong collars on cows and don’t identify them, then the programs, the technology, can’t succeed. If you take care of that, then, the data is reliable.

MATHESON: The system can give you lying and standing times, which is part of something that we’re just coming to grips with as far as cow comfort. We really don’t have any numbers yet as far as what they should be. Information is only good if you can take action from it. I honestly haven’t found that beneficial just yet, but I’m sure we will be able to glean more information from it. There may be a way to identify lame cows with this information, but given our herd size we spot them anyway.

Q. Have you found any unexpected benefits?

GOESER: Yes, we actually put the monitors on cows in the pre-fresh pen. We are able to also monitor ketosis and sore feet.

SIMON: Mastitis for sure, which would be from the conductivity part of the system that measures salts in the milk. That has been absolutely huge. We’re actually able to find mastitis cows sometimes before the milkers find them just by looking at the percent increase in conductivity. We also find sick and lame cows much easier with this system because their activity decreases.

NOBLE: One main benefit is that this system works so much better than I thought it ever would.

STEWART: One is its ability to detect all the cows that we couldn’t find before. It’s done a great job of finding cows that are cycling. That’s been a huge benefit. It really reduces the number of cows that we thought were anestrus.

The second thing is we’re surprised at the number of cystic cows that actually become pregnant. I find cows that are getting bred, that were previously called cystic. Because we’re relying on technology, and not protocols, basically we’re saving a bunch of pregnancies.

MATHESON: As a rule, this system doesn’t work on every cow and none of the systems do. But it has actually helped identify cows that are cystic because there will be no spikes on their graphs. If I was looking for improvements on the system, I would like the system to talk (link) with a herd management system like DairyComp so that I don’t have to double enter data.

Q. What have you learned from using activity monitors?

GOESER: This system is not a Band-Aid; it is part of a whole program. You still have got to have good flooring, good nutrition and your cows have to be healthy. It does help cut down the use of injections on cows and creates less stress on them.

One of our veterinarians commented on how our cows are now calmer. Also, the payback for the system occurred within 14 months. These savings are due to decrease in hormone shots and more pregnancies. We have some months with pregnancy rates up to 28 percent.

NOBLE: When we turn the cows out to pasture, everything is upside down and backwards for a day or two because there is a lot of activity that has nothing to do with heat. However, the system has been very accurate because of the way the responders work in that they compare a cow to herself and her herdmates.

MATHESON: A pleasant surprise was also how little hormones I’m giving cows now as compared to before. I still have to give some to cows that are anestrous, but I’m happy with how little I’m having to do that.

Q. What advice would you give other dairy producers thinking about activity monitoring systems?

GOESER: We try to always keep the collars on cows. When a cow is confirmed pregnant, we take the collar tag off and put it on another cow. We do this to be able to monitor foot problems and cows with low activity. The herd manager usually looks at the cows’ activity indexes and then delegates someone to go to a low-activity cow and do a physical exam of a cow to determine the problem, whether it’s a foot problem or something like a displaced abomasum.

SIMON: This system is basically like hiring another employee that works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Your herdsman doesn’t have to be out in the barns 24/7 because as long as he can trust the information from the computer, it makes his job much easier. It’s nice to rely on technology that works that well.

NOBLE: The sort gates are really good. When you try to move cows or catch cows, you have an inherent problem because the milkers have to watch the cows and catch them. Either they won’t do a good job of catching cows or they’ll fall behind in their milking. When I want to catch cows, I can punch their numbers into the computer and catch them. When you’re going to get responders to automatically sort cows, you may as well get the ankle responders that can monitor heat activity.

STEWART: A lot of the hang-up is the upfront cost. Having gone through that already, I can honestly say that it pays for itself. Going into a big expense, you always worry about if this is going to be money well spent. If it assists and you believe in it, it will return.

MATHESON: I think that the system has exceeded our expectations since we put it in. I would advise people that they should expect to improve. The cost of this system was significantly lower than some of the other competing systems that I looked into. We actually own another system that runs in our heifer barn. As time goes the tags have failed on it, but we haven’t had that issue on this system. The initial investment into this system wasn’t as much either.

Q. How has the system changed your reproductive management?

GOESER: We do vet checks weekly, so we do pregnancy checks then, too. I can tell how good the heat detection is by the number of pregnancies we have for the vet. If you have a good heat detection system, you don’t have open cows. We’ll usually have 60 to 80 percent of the cows pregnant for the vet.

SIMON: Our current pregnancy rate right now is 32 percent. Before that we were 20 or 21 percent. I don’t have an exact percent for our heat detection rate, but I’m sure we saw an 18 to 20 percent increase after installing the system.

NOBLE: We really haven’t had the system long enough to evaluate our pregnancy rate. My reproductive turnaround is close to what I had before in terms of average days in milk and calving intervals. Our heat detection rate is a direct correlation to the average days in milk and length of time in turnaround. For calving interval, we have about taken three weeks off of the turnaround time.

STEWART: There was a gradual increase in pregnancy rate over the years after introducing it. I’ve had years where the pregnancy rate was good year-round. I’ve had some years where there were a few off-months. As far as heat detection, we are starting to pick up a lot of heats pre-voluntary waiting period than we ever thought before. We’re getting the tags attached on cows after they freshen, so we know cows are cycling when they should be.

MATHESON: Our pregnancy rate was 21 percent for 15 years. Since we put the system in, it has gone up to 26 percent on average. I wasn’t counting on that. In terms of heat detection rates, I don’t actually look at this. There really wasn’t a comparison of this system to the previous one because we weren’t really scoping out heats with our needling program. I’m looking for the final result rather than the initial measure. PD


Dario Martinez
Assistant Editor