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Wisconsin dairy adopts new activity monitoring with a cloud-based digital assistant

Progressive Dairy Editor Walt Cooley Published on 26 August 2021

Dairyman Evan Hillan farms with his parents, Eric and Carol Hillan, in northwest Wisconsin. Their farm, Rusk Rose Holsteins, is in expansion mode – but like many other dairies, they are also facing a labor shortage.

Most importantly, their herdswoman recently announced her intention to leave to farm with family.

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“We were kind of looking for something that was going to help us out labor-wise and do a better job at looking for herd health insights,” Evan says.

The farm has been doing daily pen walks to visually check on the health of their cows. They also rely on deviations in milk weights to individually check on cows who might need assistance. But as the herd was expanding from 350 milking cows to 500 cows, those pen walks and individual animal checks were taking longer and longer. Plus, with having to look for a new herdsperson, the Hillans needed something to help them through until they found a replacement.

That’s when the Hillans began to consider activity monitoring seriously.

As a 32-year-old, Evan turned to Google first to start researching different activity monitoring systems for his family’s cows. That’s when he found Connecterra.

Connecterra is a Dutch company operating in 18 countries throughout the world. The company builds its own activity monitoring collars for cows. But they also process the data from their sensors in the cloud for farmers and generate insights about cow health, comfort and productivity. The company’s activity monitors can detect six cow behaviors: rumination, eating, standing, lying, walking and idle. These activities enable the detection of estrus, calving, lameness and more. The company’s digital assistant, Ida, detects these activities and uses artificial intelligence to send insights that alert a farmer that intervention might be necessary. Unlike other systems, Ida asks farmers for feedback about its alerts and then it learns from farmers’ responses. Farmers can also “Ask Ida” a question, and Ida will post a response based on the farmer’s data.

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“We are building the core of our company around this advanced technology, not because it’s cool to be in AI, but because that is the tech that is actually going to do real work for dairy farmers,” says CEO and co-founder of the company Yasir Khokhar. “If you build the right tech, farmers will use it … And AI is what actually makes our tech work well for farms of all types and sizes.”

The Hillans did their due diligence to look into several different activity monitoring systems. However, they recently decided to install an activity monitoring system from Connecterra. They like the system’s emphasis on cow health, how the company continues to add new tracking features and the overall ability to learn from input provided on the farm and adapt what individual cow health alerts may be necessary.

“The main benefit I really liked about it was that it is an artificial intelligence,” Evan says. “While it runs, and as time goes by, it tweaks its algorithm to fit your herd. Older systems have basically written their software and hard-coded the algorithms that run their program. They seem to be less flexible.”

During his research, Evan found most activity monitoring systems are sold as offering improved reproduction as their primary benefit. The Hillans weren’t in need of a solution to address reproduction. They run a fairly successful synchronization breeding protocol. The herd has a 34% preg rate. Evan wanted herd health to be the primary benefit from starting to work with an activity monitoring system. The farm has 81,000 SCCs per milliliter and a low level of DA and ketosis frequency.

Convincing his 60-plus-years-old parents that a computer could do better than a human at monitoring cow health took Evan many conversations.

“They’ve been doing this for over 30 years, so they know what they’re doing. They trust their experience with cows more than a computer,” Evan says. “As an example of their technology adoption, my dad didn’t get a smartphone until they stopped selling flip phones.”

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The dairy does have experience with several other technologies, including feeding and herd management software. They have also employed automatic calf feeders since 2014.

“That’s probably one of the best things we’ve ever done for our calves,” Evan says. “Our rate of gain has been really good, and we’ve been having really healthy calves coming out of that barn ever since we put in the automated feeders.”

Evan is the calf and heifer manager for the farm and says the dairy’s experience getting daily information about drinking speed, number of times a calf visited the feeder and the amount of feed consumed each day has helped the dairy to be open to other technologies.

“It’s not a lot of data, but it helps us target calves that need more assistance. It’s helped us catch a few more calves that need help – more than just a daily visual inspection would,” Evan says.

Similar to what they’ve seen using data to monitor their calves, the dairy hopes to use activity monitoring data to catch cows earlier and help train a new replacement herd manager.

“My parents or I could go out and look and say, ‘OK, this cow is probably not feeling well. We should check her.’ But with bringing in a new person, this could be an issue because they might just look at a cow and walk right past her because they wouldn’t know what to look for,” Evan says. “This new system helps walk through all of the clinical steps they would need to look for so they can start to learn and get better at identifying cows that are sick.”

That’s how Connecterra promotes their cloud-based data software – named Ida – as an artificial intelligence dairy herd assistant.

The farm doesn’t plan to change its synchronization breeding program immediately after installation. Evan says he would like Ida to be able to observe the farm as it is now and create a baseline before they make any changes. That way, the program can provide metrics for how the changes they are making are affecting the herd. However, from a repro perspective, they would like to be able to cherry-pick cows the system detects in heat in the future. Eventually, they are willing to move off of their synchronization program and breed solely off of activity.

Evan says his nutritionist is also interested to see how the insights might be able to reveal opportunities to improve the dairy’s feeding program based on its rumination activity data. All cows and breeding-age heifers will be fitted with the company’s activity monitor collars.

As a National Dairy Board member, Evan is fully aware of the need to continue to show consumers that the industry is taking good care of cows.

“Besides looking for a health benefit from the system, we also hope that, down the road, this will provide data to prove to consumers that we are taking care of our cows well,” Evan says. end mark

Note: Progressive Dairy’s peer technology series gives readers a firsthand look at another producer’s experience adopting a new technology. In exchange for their participation in this article series, Rusk Rose Holsteins has received in-kind compensation in the form of a discount from Connecterra. Future articles in this series will revisit this dairy and their experience onboarding with this technology and the benefits they are finding through using it.

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