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Consider automated options to improve cow comfort and health

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 July 2017

Today’s technology is offering ways to enhance cow comfort using labor-saving robots, automated equipment and computerized health monitoring systems. With such a wide array of options available, selecting those that fit the individual needs of your dairy can be challenging.

“Not every technology will fit in all dairy management strategies. Picking and choosing technologies that will complement herd management or, maybe more importantly, help address specific challenges is probably the best approach,” Dr. Robert Lynch, dairy herd health and management specialist at Cornell PRO-DAIRY, said.

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Barn comfort

Cows need lying time to rest and to ruminate. Unfortunately, many things can get in the way. Overcrowding, poor bedding management, stall size and heat stress are examples of the environmental conditions that can reduce lying time. But some of these issues can be rectified with automation.

  • Sand: Sand bedding is a popular choice for the lactating herd in freestall barns, but the sand isn’t always properly groomed. If it’s not clean, dry and comfortable, cows will not utilize the stalls fully, impacting herd health and productivity.

“Keeping enough sand in the stalls and replacing it often enough to minimize excessive organic matter content” is critical for cow comfort and health, Lynch said.

Using equipment designed to get the job done efficiently, such as a loader attachment which aerates the sand and levels it out, keeping the sand right where the cows need it to be, will provide maximum comfort.

A bedding extractor, which is mounted to a skid steer, can clean out stalls efficiently, reducing mastitis risk. This sand bedding equipment can eliminate the labor of hand raking.

  • Dried manure solids: Another popular bedding option, dried manure solids (DMS) carries a risk of mastitis from its high moisture content. Keeping the moisture content down – via mechanical means after separation, good barn ventilation and the use of blowers – can reduce the risk.

“Mastitis risk is the primary concern with DMS bedding, and figuring out the best management strategies to use DMS safely is ongoing,” Lynch said. “High moisture content makes the DMS stick to the udder, making milking hygiene a challenge. Farms doing everything else well to reduce mastitis risk tend to have the best success using DMS for bedding.”

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  • Footbaths: While footbaths are common, they are often under-managed and therefore not functioning to their true capabilities, Lynch said. Automatic footbath systems – which fill, dose, flush and replenish – are available. Proper footbath use can help reduce infectious hoof diseases.

  • Curtains: Automatic curtains can assist with ventilation and maintaining air quality. Automated cooling systems, such as soaker systems, protect cows from heat stress. Many programmable options are available, so environmental conditions can be easily maintained.

Feeding time

  • Automated calf feeders: “The primary concerns for pre-weaned calves are scours and pneumonia. Any technology that can improve antibody passive transfer, optimal nutrition and hygiene, and air quality – a challenge for calves housed indoors – will help improve calf health,” Lynch said.

Feeding calves for greater average daily gain enhances first-lactation milk yield. Traditional feeding methods aren’t as effective in maximizing average daily gain as is an automated calf-feeding system, which can precisely deliver the proper nutrition to each calf to maximize future milk yield.

Automated feeders can track calf feeding progress, daily milk consumption levels and even drinking speeds.

  • Automated feed pushers: In the cow barn, automatic feed pushers can be robotic, or may use a cable or rail system. These systems keep feed pushed up and available 24 hours per day, even when no one is physically available to do so. Nutrition is enhanced, while labor needs are reduced.

Monitoring and analysis

  • Rumination and activity: While hands-on observation of cows is always prudent, automated health monitoring systems can offer insights into cow health. These monitoring systems can indicate problems, often several days in advance of clinical diagnosis.

“Rumination and activity monitor systems work well when included with other health management protocols on the dairy,” Lynch said. “They are not sensitive enough to be used as the sole means of finding all sick cows yet.”

These monitors can provide combined data that indicate metabolic or digestive disorders. Severe cases of metritis, mastitis caused by E. coli and mastitis concurrent with another health disorder can all be effectively detected via rumination and activity monitoring.

Indigestion, ketosis and displaced abomasum can be found prior to the presentation of clinical symptoms too.

  • Milk analysis: Blood non-esterified fatty acids levels can be predicted from milk during the fresh period, warning of future problems. Milk fatty acids are different in transition cows with displaced abomasums than in healthy cows.

Mid-IR (Infrared) milk analysis is another method of potentially finding health problems before they manifest. Analyzing the milk fingerprint of a cow can indicate metabolic, reproductive and dietary concerns. Research is currently being done to determine if mid-IR milk analysis can assist with other cow health issues, including detecting estrus, confirming pregnancy following insemination and monitoring rumen pH.

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“In my opinion, IR analysis for finding cows with health issues is exciting but still falls under research. I do think it will be used in a commercial setting soon, however,” Lynch said.

  • Radio frequency identification tag: One other tool being used to make daily cowside chores more efficient is a radio frequency identification tag or transponder. When used in conjunction with a mobile “wand” reader, which can send data to handheld devices, workers can have the information they need on each individual cow right at their fingertips.

Automated dairying isn’t hands-free. Automation comes with its own challenges and doesn’t necessarily mean less work but, rather, a change in job description. It may mean learning new skill sets needed to work in conjunction with computerized technology.

“Inevitably, the technology itself needs to be managed, maintained, repaired and interpreted by a person,” Lynch said. “There also needs to be someone at the dairy who’s excited to utilize the new technology.” end mark

A presentation by Dr. Robert Lynch, dairy herd health and management specialist, Cornell PRO-DAIRY, focused on the role dairy automation and technology can play in improving cow comfort. This article is based on the proceedings from the recent Cow Comfort Conference, hosted by the North Country Regional Ag Team of Cornell Cooperative Extension, and a follow-up interview.

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

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