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Dairymen to test-drive new handheld moisture monitor

Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley Published on 06 May 2014

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Two dairies that will test-drive a new handheld feedstuff moisture monitor as part of Progressive Dairyman’s first-ever peer technology user group say they want to use and evaluate the device to determine its effectiveness on their farms.

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Jim Winn of Cottonwood Dairy in South Wayne, Wisconsin, and Jack Pirtle of P7 Dairy in Roswell, New Mexico, both recently received a new Moisture Tracker from Wisconsin-based Digi-Star.

The instant moisture test results that the near infra-red technology-enabled unit provides could save the dairies money on feed and labor costs, if the accuracy holds true.

For the dairies’ participation in Progressive Dairyman ’s user group, they will keep the first-ever commercial handheld moisture monitors for the rest of the year, about a $7,000 value to each of them. Both Winn and Pirtle have agreed to ongoing interviews about their experience using the units.

Jim Winn
Cottonwood Dairy
South Wayne, Wisconsi
n

“By being able to zero-in on moisture levels more often, I hope we will save money as far as how much we’re feeding,” dairyman Jim Winn says.

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Winn’s dairy moisture-tests, at least once per week, the corn silage and haylage fed to the dairy’s 1,600 Holstein cows. During periods of wet weather, employees may test two to three times per week.

Like most other dairies, Winn has been using a Koster tester, which inherently delays results of the moisture tests for several hours.

“We always struggle to keep ahead of the moisture, especially on rainy or snowy days,” Winn says. “When I learned that we could have moisture levels at our fingertips, right now, it really intrigued me.”

Winn learned earlier this year about the NIR device and discovered it can test for moisture levels in a variety of forages in less than two minutes. Digi-Star’s technical sales manager Dick Bonner says the company has been developing the handheld moisture testing technology over the past four years.

A moisture test is performed by pushing the gun-looking unit closely against a pile of forage, squeezing its light-emitting trigger and repeating the process at 20 or more locations throughout the pile to get the most accurate reading.

The unit can presently test about 30 different ingredients, including alfalfa hay, haylage, distillers grains and corn silage. More ingredients will be added in the future, Bonner says.

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On the most common feedstuffs, the company claims the unit’s nearly-instant results are about plus-or-minus 1 percentage point of results that would be obtained from oven-drying the same sample at 122ºF (50ºC) over 48 hours.

Regional feedstuffs, such as citrus pulp, will have a preliminary calibration available in the ingredient unit’s list but may not have the same level of accuracy. As more ingredient samples are added to the database for these regional feedstuffs, the unit’s calibrations will become as accurate as those for the commonly used feeds, Bonner says.

The company will manufacture and sell the handheld units to its own customers as well as distribute units through a marketing partner that will sell the units under a private label.

Winn says the unit will have to be “fairly accurate” to make it worth its use. In his eyes, the unit needs to be more accurate than just within two or three percentage points.

“Maybe it’s already dialed in. [Digi-Star] is confident that it is,” Winn says. “We’ll see.”

“In the short time the product has been available, it has become very apparent that in the industry there is a lack of awareness of the variation that exists in moisture testing – both in sample collecting as well as the drying method used,” Bonner says.

He says it’s not uncommon to see variations of 2 to 3 percentage points due to sampling technique alone. By design, Bonner says, the new handheld unit requires users to take a more representative sample of each ingredient, increasing the consistency and accuracy of the results.

After receiving a tutorial about the new unit, Winn was most impressed that its calibrations will be updated regularly.

The unit comes with a start-up USB drive that also installs the device’s utility software to a desktop computer. If the computer is connected to the Internet, it will alert users when software updates and new calibrations are available for download and transfer to the device via USB.

Although he says he will discontinue the use of the Koster tester, Winn will send weekly feed samples to the lab to side-by-side test the accuracy of the handheld unit.

His full-time feeder and part-time feeder will also be trained in the use of the unit. He plans to have himself or another manager take periodic moisture readings after the feeders to detect any human error from misuse of the unit.

“We thought we were pretty accurate before with employees doing the Koster testing,” Winn says. “With the side-by-side tests we will do at the lab and spot-checking employees on the dairy, we will be pretty confident that what the employees are doing is accurate.”

Winn uses the company’s ration mixing software, TMR Tracker, and will manually enter the handheld unit’s moisture readings into the ration mixing system to have influence over daily weights for his dairy’s rations.

“As far as I know, it’s auto-adjusting the rations for those moisture contents,” Winn says.

Forage quality and feeding play an important role in milk production at Cottonwood Dairy. Winn says he likes to call his 3X-milking dairy a 95-pound-per-day herd, a peak they’ve achieved before but not recently. The herd currently averages about 90 pounds of milk per cow each day.

“It’s been a struggle to reach that high level of milk production with the crops we’ve had the last couple of years,” Winn says.

In 2012, the dairy struggled to produce high-quality forages in great quantity due to the Midwestern drought. And last year, the dairy had challenges, like other nearby operations, with winter-killed alfalfa stands and lingering drought issues.

The dairy supplies 100 percent of its own forage needs, cropping 2,400 acres, 800 of which the dairy owns. It purchases about two-thirds of its corn.

Winn says he hopes to be able to use the unit to test the moisture levels of the wet brewers grains and corn gluten the dairy feeds. He also hopes to use the unit during forage harvests this year.

“We’ve struggled the last two years, putting up forages that are too dry,” Winn says. “We need to be three to four points of moisture higher in our haylage.”

As with any new technology purchase, Winn looks for a return on investment as manifested by labor savings and more milk.

“We don’t mind spending money if the payback is going to be there,” Winn says.

He says he hopes the handheld unit proves as promising as it sounds.

Jack Pirtle
P7 Dairy
Roswell, New Mexico

“Looking at this Digi-Star unit, where they are claiming it to be within approximately a percentage point of accuracy, that’s what grabbed my attention,” Pirtle says.

Pirtle got into the dairy business just under a decade ago. He now milks 3,000 cows. His family’s primary agricultural business for three generations has been farming. In the most recent decade, the family has earned a significant portion of its income from growing corn and barley silages, ensiling them and selling the feed to dairies in Chaves County, the nation’s No. 12 milk-producing county.

Thus, Pirtle and his family are well accustomed to moisture testing. On any given day, Pirtle’s mom and sister will prepare and cook 10 to 15 silage samples, one for each load of silage the dairy sells.

Each load of forage invoiced carries with it an accompanying moisture test and total weight of forage sold adjusted to 72 percent moisture. The accuracy, mobility and instant results of the handheld moisture monitor is what most intrigues Pirtle and his family.

“If this works out, it would cut out a lot of labor for my mom and sister,” says Pirtle, who estimates the family’s current method for preparing and logging forage samples takes one to two hours per day.

Pirtle was first exposed to NIR moisture testing a few years ago when the technology was offered as a fixed unit attached to a silage chopper.

“We looked at putting one on our chopper but it was like $30,000,” Pirtle says.

Besides the cost, the lack of pinpoint accuracy was a deal-breaker for him too.

“Accuracy within 2 or 3 percent points was the claim back then. But we felt we were that accurate ourselves by just looking at an uncut forage field, by feeling it, by weighing the trucks coming off the field or by just watching how the forage clung to the sides of the trucks hauling it.”

Pirtle plans to use the handheld moisture tester during this season’s harvest. Pirtle usually weighs and moisture tests often during harvest. That means 50 to 60 forage samples and moisture tests per day at harvest time.

“Where I have been cooking samples for 10 years, what we’re going to do is start using the unit and see how accurate we feel it is. If we don’t feel it’s accurate, that would keep us from using it long term.”

To test the accuracy of the unit, Pirtle plans to continue his daily in-house oven tests and compare them to the results from the handheld moisture tester. He’s also going to continue his monthly regimen of sending a sample to a commercial testing lab to verify his in-house results.

Pirtle currently adjusts his TMR mixes weekly to match the average moisture test results that his mom and sister generate. With the handheld unit, he hopes to pinpoint the moisture levels that will influence TMR calculations with a daily spot test.

He’ll be daily testing his corn and barley silage as well as the baled dry hay that goes into his ration. All combined these ingredients make up 40 percent of his ration.

Pirtle would like to experiment with the unit to see if it could also accurately measure the moisture in the steam-flaked corn he buys. Bonner says it’s possible the unit could test moistures in such a coarse feed, although it does not currently have a calibration for it and further evaluation would be needed.

“We’ve had issues before with our steam-flaked corn getting moldy. If I thought the mill was putting too much moisture into it, I’d like to be able to check that,” Pirtle says. “My tolerance would be for 16 to 18 percent moisture but if I’m getting some that is 20 to 22 percent moisture, then I’m just paying for water that’s not necessary.”

If the new technology proves it is just as accurate, if not more so, than his conventional methods, Pirtle says it will be worth it to adopt it permanently.

“I hope to prove it’s as accurate as my oven. That way I wouldn’t have to wait at least 24 hours for results,” Pirtle says. PD

Dick Bonner and Digi-Star can be reached at (920) 568-6210 or by email .

If you’re interested in applying to be part of a future Progressive Dairyman peer technology group, email Editor Walt Cooley for details.

walt cooley

Walt Cooley
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

On a scale of 1 to 5, Progressive Dairyman found these dairymen are interested in new technology for their businesses at the following levels.

Jim Winn 4.2
“Jim and his dairy partners are excited about lots of new technologies. When they select one to pursue, they go all-in. Once they are convinced a product or service will provide a return for their business, its cost plays a minimal factor in their decision-making process. Since Jim uses the company’s TMR mixing software, I’m curious to see if he observes any noticeable improvements in feeding because his software will be using the unit’s reading to auto-correct his TMR moisture levels.” —Editor Walt Cooley

Top new technology categories of interest

1. Herd health

2. Business/employee management

3. Forage production/analysis

Jack Pirtle 3.6
“The number of forage sample tests that Jack initiates each day due to his silage-selling business makes Jack a prime candidate to use this time- and labor-saving technology. He also has the necessary set-up and volume to test the benefits of using the unit in the field at harvest time. It will be interesting to see if Jack realizes these most obvious benefits during his test-drive.” —Editor Walt Cooley

Top new technology categories of interest:

1. Forage production/analysis

2. Milking & testing equipment

3. Feed/nutrition

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