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Dairywomen to test-drive in-line milk sensor

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 28 September 2018

Under current review: SomaDetect

Two dairies that will test-drive a new in-line milk sensor say they are looking to replace their current methods of milk testing and pregnancy checks with more timely information.



Natasha Sutherland of Stein Farms in Le Roy, New York, and Virginia (Ginny) Folts of Folts Farms in North Collins, New York, are planning to install in-line sensors by SomaDetect in the next few months.

The optical sensor uses light scattering technology for rapid, on-site determinations of major compounds in raw milk. It measures critical indicators of dairy quality (fat, protein, somatic cell counts, progesterone and antibiotics) from every cow at every milking.

Both Sutherland and Folts have agreed to ongoing interviews about their experience using the units.

Natasha Sutherland
Stein Farms LLC
Le Roy, New York

Sutherland has been looking for faster, more responsive milk testing technology ever since she became a partner in the farm four years ago and recommended they stop using the DHI monthly tests.


“I don’t like putting measuring equipment higher than udder. You’re causing a slug in the milkline, and you’re basically creating more mastitis by having them come in than what you are actually analyzing on the day,” Sutherland says.

With a focus on improving milk flow from the udder, the farm changed all of the inflations, claw size and milk hose in its parlors, and significantly lowered the somatic cell count.

“We were constantly at 300,000 in the winter; now we’re nicely at 180,000,” she says.

The feature that this monitoring device fits into the milking line of existing dairy equipment is something that appealed to Sutherland, along with knowing this company is led by women.

The farm team has looked at a number of different options from pedometer systems, handheld milk testing devices and health monitoring systems.

“This one checked off all of the boxes all of the different departments of the farm were looking for,” she says.


Stein Farms LLC is a 1,000-cow dairy with 850 replacements and 2,700 acres that are double-cropped as much as possible.

It is operated by Sutherland and her husband, Richard; her father, Ray Stein; her brother, Jerrod Stein; her uncle, Dale Stein; and his son, Nate Stein.

The first sensor units are set to be installed soon in the farm’s eight-stall parlor for fresh, lame and treated cows. Due to production issues, the sensors won’t be installed in the farm’s main double-18 parallel parlor until December.

Improving reproduction is a key focus on the farm right now, so progesterone levels will be one of the first data points Sutherland plans to watch once it is available.

The farm will continue to conduct its 32-day, 60-day and 193-day pregnancy checks for several months and compare the results to the information coming from the sensor.

“As soon as we can see that it’s truly matching cow-per-cow information, we’ll probably drop everything but our 32-day pregnancy check,” she says, adding, “If you can cut your herd check down from the 2.5 hours weekly to a 30- to 40-minute run-through – get the early girls checked and you’re done – that’s a huge cost savings.”

Sutherland is sold on the idea it could be an amazing product and has agreed to the flat fee per cow per day, but she is concerned about product support and how the poor internet connection they have in rural America will impact its use.

“It better show me some results, and it better be every bit as good as they guarantee it to be,” she says.

Ginny Folts
Folts Farms LLC
North Collins, New York

“Milk quality is a huge factor for us,” Folts says.

As a National Mastitis Council platinum award winner last year, the farm strives to keep its somatic cell count less than 100,000.

It is a fairly new farm that started milking in 2016. For its first year, the average somatic cell count was 50,000, and last year it was 80,000.

Folts milks 120 cows with two Lely robots and farms 400 acres with her husband, Joshua, and two sons, Zane and Isaac.

When they installed the robots, Folts says they were hoping to get the individual somatic cell counter available on units in Canada. However, it has yet to be approved for use in the U.S.

Instead, she has relied on monthly DHI testing and conductivity reports from the robots.

“The robots give us feedback and information about conductivity, which does give us some really good indicators, but it’s not fool-proof,” she says. “Sometimes there are cows shedding one day and not the next.

“In order to keep quality high in our tank, I want to be able to address cows that are getting sick earlier. This [in-line sensor] will give me another tool to be able to do that,” Folts says.

The first set of data she plans to watch once the system is installed in January is individual somatic cell counts. “It will be like having my DHI report every day, and that will be huge,” she says.

Folts figures the cost of the in-line sensors is going to be fairly similar on a monthly basis to DHI testing. After a few months of doing both to make sure the new data is reliable, she may cancel the DHI testing.

“My biggest concern, as any dairy farmer, when implementing anything is cost, so I’m hoping to at least do away with the one service and let this one replace it,” she says.

In addition to milk quality, Folts plans to use this system to help monitor their pregnancy checks from the progesterone data.

The Foltses aren’t strangers to adopting new technologies, as they have automated manure scrapers, barn curtains and a feed pusher in addition to the milking robots.

“We had a learning curve [when installing the robots], and I think we’re on the upswing of those hurdles, but it was an adjustment,” she says.

She is looking to continue to gain farm efficiencies by installing this sensor.

“When it makes things on the farm more efficient, that allows me to have more time to spend with cow care,” Folts says.

For her, efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean faster. “I want the quality to be maintained while doing it better,” she says.  end mark

Karen Lee
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On a scale of 1 to 5, Progressive Dairyman found this dairy is interested in new technology for its business at the following level:

Folts Farms LLC

“I am looking forward to see what Folts Farms LLC does with more concrete somatic cell count information on a daily basis. How will they utilize this data for treatment decisions? I am curious to learn how it will compare to their current system based on conductivity information.”

—Karen Lee, Progressive Dairyman editor

Top new technology categories of interest:

1. Herd health

2. Cow comfort and cooling

3. Breeding and genetics

4. Tractors and machinery

5. Feeding and nutrition

On a scale of 1 to 5, Progressive Dairyman found this dairy is interested in new technology for its business at the following level:

Stein Farms LLC

“I am interested to see how having individual cow data helps Stein Farms LLC make better reproductive decisions. Will they be able to improve their breeding strategies and make more genetic gains? I think it has the potential to do that. It will also be interesting to see what management changes result in terms of milk quality.”

—Karen Lee, Progressive Dairyman editor

Top new technology categories of interest:

1. Milking and testing equipment

2. Breeding and genetics

3. Herd health

4. Cow comfort and cooling

5. Forage production and analysis