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Three technologies turn into profits for Heller Farm

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 09 February 2012

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After Cody Heller graduated from college in 2007 with a degree in ag business management, he returned home to the family farm in Alma Center, Wisconsin, with hopes of managing the farm’s finances.

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At his father’s request, he instead spent a year in the barn becoming reacquainted with the farm’s daily operations.

Heading into 2009, his role at the 1,000-cow dairy was amended to leading the herd health team, as well as easing into the finances of the dairy.

“2009 was almost more educational than my four years in college,” Heller said. “I learned how to cut expenses and get more from what you have.”

By combining his barn experiences with the financial side of the business, he was able to identify and seek out technologies that could not only ease daily tasks, but also add profit to the farm.

Heller implemented AFI Farm, Feed Watch and remote access at the dairy and told of each of their benefits at the Vita Plus Dairy Summit, Dec. 8, in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.

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AFI Farm
Heller Farm utilizes the AFI Act portion of the AFI Farm system. According to Heller, it did not cash flow to implement the company’s milk metering equipment with the way the dairy currently operates.

However, they are getting great returns with the activity system, which they use for heat detection in all the dairy’s cows and heifers.

The system includes leg bands for each cow, control boards in the parlor, readers and antennas to relay information and a computer to collect and analyze the data. It detects heat by measuring steps taken, lay-down time and standing time.

With this system, Heller Farm has reduced the number of days open, detected abortions and cystic cows earlier and logged a history of early heats and previous lactation events.

“The computer does a good job of sensing when a cow is at her peak heat to maximize the breeding,” Heller said.

Each morning a report is generated for the person in charge of breeding on the farm. The cows listed in green are the ones the computer really wants bred.

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Once done breeding the cows, the breeder looks at the heifer report and goes to the heifer farm, located three miles away as the crow flies.

By implementing this system in the heifers, too, it has eliminated the need to go to the heifer farm twice a day for heat detection.

However, because heifers tend to be more active, Heller said they had to narrow down the parameters in the computer for this group in order to better select the animals that really are in heat.

The herdsman also receives a daily report of cows displaying reduced activity. This helps him foresee subclinical mastitis, injuries and digestive problems, such as hemorrhagic bowel or clostridium.

“If a cow is only doing 75 steps an hour, that’s a problem because normally she is doing 180 to 190 steps an hour,” Heller said. “Those cows we probably wouldn’t have seen before (we installed the activity monitors).”

Since implementing the system, the farm’s heat detection has increased from 16 percent to 62 percent. Pregnancy rate has jumped from 10 to 18 percent.

“Those are huge numbers and that is money,” Heller said. In addition, the farm has saved money by eliminating the use of synchronization programs across the herd.

Now it only synchs cows that go past 95 days without showing heat. That has amounted to just five cows since introducing the program.

He said the biggest hurdle was to convince a staff that has been heat detecting throughout their entire career to trust the computer. In the end, the decision has really paid off for the farm.

According to Heller, the investment cost of the system was $85,000 for his dairy. By eliminating one full-time person for heat detection, they save $45,000 a year, the increased pregnancy rate nets an annual return of $160,000 and cutting out the labor and hormones for the synch programs saves $12,000 a year. In total, that is an annual return of $217,000.

“Even with 30 cows, it can do wonderful things for you,” he said.

Feed Watch Pro
Prompted by the need to purchase a new feed mixer for the farm in 2010, the Hellers decided to add on the Feed Watch Pro feed management software program. It features scheduling of loads, mix timers, reports, Dairy Comp 305 integration and user-defined fields.

This system requires a scale head, antenna and LED display. The farm’s main computer is also used to collect and analyze data through the company’s software program.

Through this program the dairy’s nutritionist can easily change recipes, track dry matter intake (DMI) weekly, track costs and troubleshoot.

Managers at the farm can set target DMIs and monitor them daily, schedule feeding and mixing times, track and project inventories, and see cost summaries.

The farm changes each group’s DMI daily, based upon refusals, weather and ration changes. When making larger alterations, the program helps the feeder gradually change the DMI of specific ingredients to slowly introduce the changes to cows.

The program automatically adjusts based on what has already been fed for the day, so that by the end of the day the feeder can hit the target DMI. “That is phenomenal; we absolutely save money there,” Heller said.

In monitoring mixing time, the program automatically makes the screen blank when it is supposed to be mixing so that the feeder cannot see the next ingredient to add until it is finished.

Inventories are tracked and projected over a day, week, month or longer. This enables them to keep fewer ingredients on the farm, especially commodities, he said. It also helps them know how much corn silage to put up by adjusting for shrinkage.

Heller watches the feeding time accuracy graph to see how consistently the feeder delivers fresh feed to the cows. “It is very important to me and the farm to see that the first load of feed is delivered to the high cows at the same time every day,” he said.

He follows feed costs on a daily basis and can see each day what it costs to feed all of the groups and the cost per head per group.

Another cost-tracking function used by Heller is the mix error cost tracking. This records how many additional pounds the feeder put in the mixer.

During the first month of use, Heller didn’t tell his feeder the program had this capability. Instead he simply gathered the information and found that errors were costing the farm an additional $94.98 per day.

Once he showed the information to the feeder, they set a goal of $45 per day and the feeder was able to do even better, coming in at $35 per day, a net savings of $60. Now, Heller supplies the feeder with a copy of this report each month and says the feeder likes seeing the data to know where he’s at in terms of performance.

Total cost of the program for Heller Farm was $11,400, plus it pays an annual support fee of $250.Based on income of $14,600 in reduced mix error, $2,500 in inventory control and $7,500 in fewer refusals, Heller calculates the dairy saves at least $26,600 a year.

He also figures the farm is saving money with better feeding accuracy, but he couldn’t calculate how much that would be.

Remote access
Heller introduced a program called WebEx PCNow to the dairy that provides local computer access from anywhere in the world via a computer, laptop, tablet or smart phone.

For this dairyman, it means he can access the dairy’s main computer to change settings or fix problems quickly while skiing down snow slopes or traveling the world as a member of the U.S. Elite Barefoot Water Ski Team.

“My consultants use it more than I do,” he admitted. The nutritionist uses it to monitor and make changes from home. It allows the vet to keep an eye on sickness, cell counts and milk weights without being on the farm.

In addition to computer access, it aids in sharing information through messaging, file sync and transfer.

Heller said it helps the farm save money by being able to fix the computer from anywhere in the world, whether it is him or third-party tech support.

In addition, ration and DMI changes are implemented faster, as well as other consultant changes.

The program generates a separate report that tracks what others are changing on the computer, so the access can be monitored as well.

For Heller Farm, each of these technologies paid for themselves in a relatively short time period. “They have allowed us to cut expenses, increase revenue and because of these attributes we are now better prepared for those volatile market swings that we are subjected to, from year to year, in the dairy industry,” Heller said. PD

Editor’s note: These programs were the result of independent business decisions made by Heller and Heller Farm. Programs similar to each of these are also available on the market today. Results mentioned, including economic reports, are specific to Heller Farm and may or may not be replicable in other operations.

PHOTO:
TOP RIGHT: Cody Heller helps manage his family’s 1,000-cow dairy in Alma Center, Wisconsin.

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Karen Lee
Midwest Editor

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