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Jury out for dairymen test-driving handheld moisture monitor

Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley Published on 18 July 2014

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Both dairymen who are test-driving a new handheld feedstuff moisture monitor say it’s still too early to tell if the unit will be of long-term use to their dairies.

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Since this spring, Cottonwood Dairy in South Wayne, Wisconsin, and P7 Dairy in Roswell, New Mexico, have been using Digi-Star’s Moisture Tracker, a NIR-enabled unit that provides moisture readings on forage and feed within a minute or two.

The dairies’ use of the new product is free for the rest of the year, about a $7,000 value to each of them, as part of their participation in Progressive Dairyman’s first-ever peer technology group. Representatives from the dairy have agreed to ongoing interviews about their experience using the units. This is the first update article about this technology.

Randy Larson
Cottonwood Dairy
South Wayne, Wisconsin

“We didn’t understand we were supposed to wait for the beep,” co-owner of Cottonwood Dairy and feeding manager Randy Larson says. “So we were getting some really odd numbers.”

Larson admits their implementation and use of the product has been spotty and inconsistent at first. The dairy used the new equipment two to three times per week initially but stopped using it after the numbers the unit provided were “all over the place.”

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Larson and others on the dairy later learned “user error” was to blame. Employees weren’t holding the unit close enough or long enough to the feed to collect an accurate reading.

To accurately use the gun-like unit, the user must tightly nestle it against the feedstuff to be measured and then pull the unit’s trigger to initiate its near-infrared LEDs. The LEDs then emit light beams which are absorbed by or reflected off of the feed. It measures the response, counts the scan and beeps when it is ready for the next scan. The process takes about a second.

To collect an accurate sample reading, the manufacturer recommends repeating the process at least 20 times at different locations throughout the feedstuff pile. In Cottonwood’s case, employees were pushing the gun up against the pile, pulling the trigger but then moving to a new spot on the pile before the gun beeped, exposing the unit’s sensors to extra light and throwing off the readings.

“Our readings are fast but not quite that fast,” says Robin Starkenburg, marketing and communications manager for Digi-Star.

Upon learning of the dairy’s experience with the equipment, the unit’s manufacturer, Digi-Star, provided the dairy with re-training on how to use the equipment. While retraining the 1,600-cow dairy’s staff, the company also installed the most recent software update to give the dairy access to the most accurate, up-to-date catalog of feedstuffs and calibrations available.

They also trained the staff how to watch for and install future updates. These updates occur periodically as additional feedstuff calibrations become available.

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“We dropped the ball,” Larson says. “We will get started using it again and putting it to work like we should have in the first place.”

Since receiving the re-training and the software updates, the dairy hadn’t been using the unit long enough at press time to “give it a fair shot” and to comment about its performance. Larson says this summer he hopes to prove the unit is accurate enough to use it to test moisture levels of the dairy’s green-chopped alfalfa as it comes into the dairy’s three-sided bunkers for ensiling.

Presently that requires extra time to test moistures using a Koster tester. At press time, the dairy had completed its first cutting, but its second crop was behind by about 10 days due to wet weather.

“Using it on loads coming in from the field would really be helpful to us once we get comfortable with it,” Larson says. “Using it on a daily basis, that would be good too. Shame on us for not quite getting it done yet.”

Jack Pirtle
P7 Dairy
Roswell, New Mexico

“I’ve got a lot of rough data, but I haven’t put it into a form I could evaluate and make a comment on yet,” Pirtle says.

Pirtle has been doing simultaneous moisture testing with the unit on the daily feed samples (about a dozen of them) pulled for his family’s silage selling business and comparing them to the oven-cooking method he’s used for a number of years to determine moisture levels.

He’s since also sent some of those same samples that have been oven-tested and NIR-tested using the handheld unit to a commercial laboratory to have them run a moisture test.

“At this point, I’m still doing some sampling and testing and comparing the different methods of moisture testing,” Pirtle says.

Pirtle says he would like to see at least one more round of side-by-side sampling before making a final decision about the value of the unit to his dairy. He also received and installed the same software updates for his 3,000-cow dairy as those provided to Cottonwood Dairy. PD

walt cooley

Walt Cooley
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley made the following observations about each of the participating producers and their use of the featured new technology:“Even if these dairies are convinced of the consistency and accuracy of the technology they are testing, and they haven’t reached a final conclusion about those two things yet, they would also have to choose to trust it more than their current methods.

“Right or wrong, it seems to me that a dairyman usually places more trust in what he can see and touch. That goes for testing, record keeping, monitoring, etc. In this way, a moisture test a dairy producer can see performed himself is likely one he’d prefer over one done by someone else at a lab or inside the case of an electronic device.

“If all other things are found to be equal, and in this case that is still up in the air, the perceived value, in time saved per test and cost per test, is what will likely tip the balance in favor of quicker adoption." — Editor Walt Cooley

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