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1408 PD: Precision dairy farming: The next dairy marvel?

Jeffrey Bewley and Mike Schutz Published on 29 September 2008

Editor’s note: The following is the first of two articles by the authors discussing precision farming techniques and their application on dairies today.

Over the last 40 years, the number of dairy farms in the U.S. has decreased considerably from more than 1,000,000 dairy operations to less than 60,000. Cornell University agricultural economists predicted the number of dairies in the U.S. would decrease from 100,000 in 2000 to 16,000 by 2020. During this period, the number of large farms (more than 500 cows) was projected to increase from 2,700 to 3,400 while the number of small farms (less than 100 cows) would decrease from 84,000 to 7,000, with large farms producing over 80 percent of the nation’s milk.

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Dairy operations today are characterized by narrower profit margins than in the past, largely because of reduced governmental involvement in regulating agricultural commodity prices. Consequently, small changes in production or efficiency can have a major impact on profitability. The resulting competition growth has intensified the drive for efficiency, resulting in increased emphasis on business and financial management. In “Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning,” Davenport and Harris pose that in industries with similar technologies and products, “high performance business processes” are one of the only ways that businesses can differentiate themselves.

Furthermore, the decision-making landscape for a dairy manager has changed dramatically with increased emphasis on consumer protection, continuous quality assurance, natural foods, pathogen-free food, zoonotic disease transmission, reduction of the use of medical treatments and increased concern for the care of animals. These changing demographics reflect a continuing change in the way in which dairy operations are managed.

In large part, many of these changes can be attributed to tremendous technological progress in all facets of dairy farming, including genetics, nutrition, reproduction, disease control and management. W. Nelson Philpot captured this change effectively in describing modern dairy farms as “technological marvels.” Conceivably, the next “technological marvel” in the dairy industry may be in precision dairy farming.

What is precision dairy farming?
Precision dairy farming is the use of technologies to measure physiological, behavioral and production indicators on individual animals to improve management strategies and farm performance. Many precision dairy farming technologies, including daily milk yield recording, milk component monitoring (e.g., fat, protein and somatic cell count [SCC]), pedometers, automatic temperature recording devices, milk conductivity indicators, automatic estrus detection monitors and daily bodyweight measurements are already being utilized by dairy producers.

Eastwood et. al. defined precision dairy farming as “the use of information technologies for assessment of fine-scale animal and physical resource variability aimed at improved management strategies for optimizing economic, social and environmental farm performance.” Spilke and Fahr stated that precision dairy farming, with specific emphasis on technologies for individual animal monitoring, “aims for an ecologically and economically sustainable production of milk with secured quality, as well as a high degree of consumer and animal protection.”

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With precision dairy farming, the trend toward group management may be reversed with focus returning to individual cows through the use of technologies. Technologies included within precision dairy farming range in complexity from daily milk yield recording to measurement of specific attributes (e.g., fat content or progesterone) within milk at each milking.

The main objectives of precision dairy farming are:

• maximizing individual animal potential

• early detection of disease

• minimizing the use of medication through preventive health measures

Precision dairy farming is inherently an interdisciplinary field incorporating concepts of informatics, biostatistics, ethology, economics, animal breeding, animal husbandry, animal nutrition and process engineering.

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Potential benefits of precision dairy farming
Perceived benefits of precision dairy farming technologies include increased efficiency, reduced costs, improved product quality, minimized adverse environmental impacts and improved animal health and well-being. These technologies are likely to have the greatest impact in the areas of health, reproduction and quality control. Realized benefits from data summarization and exception reporting are anticipated to be higher for larger herds, where individual animal observation is more challenging and less likely to occur. As dairy operations continue to increase in size, precision dairy farming technologies become more feasible because of increased reliance on less skilled labor and the ability to take advantage of economies of size related to technology adoption.

A precision dairy farming technology allows dairy producers to make more timely and informed decisions, resulting in better productivity and profitability. Real-time data can be used for monitoring animals and creating exception reports to identify meaningful deviations. In many cases, dairy management and control activities can be automated.

Alternatively, output from the system may provide a recommendation for the manager to interpret. Information obtained from precision dairy farming technologies is only useful if it is interpreted and utilized effectively in decision making. Integrated, computerized information systems are essential for interpreting the mass quantities of data obtained from precision dairy farming technologies. This information may be incorporated into decision support systems designed to facilitate decision-making for issues that require compilation of multiple sources of data.

Historically, dairy producers have used experience and judgment to identify outlying animals. While this skill is invaluable and can never be fully replaced with automated technologies, it is inherently flawed by limitations of human perception of a cow’s condition. Often, by the time an animal exhibits clinical signs of stress or illness, it is too late to intervene. These easily observable clinical symptoms are typically preceded by physiological responses evasive to the human eye (e.g., changes in temperature or heart rate). Thus, by identifying changes in physiological parameters, a dairy manager may be able to intervene sooner.

Technologies for physiological monitoring of dairy cows have great potential to supplement the observational activities of skilled herdspersons, which is especially critical as more cows are managed by fewer skilled workers. Consequently, precision dairy farming may prove to be the next important technological breakthrough in the dairy industry. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

Jeffrey Bewley
Extension Educator
University of Kentucky

and

Mike Schutz
Purdue University
for Progressive Dairyman

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