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1508 PD: The current state of precision dairy farming

Jeffrey Bewley and Mike Schutz Published on 16 October 2008

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

The list of precision dairy farming technologies used for animal status monitoring and management continues to grow. Because of rapid development of new technologies and supporting applications, precision dairy farming technologies are becoming more feasible. Many precision dairy farming technologies including daily milk yield recording, milk component monitoring (e.g. fat, protein and somatic cell count), pedometers, automatic temperature recording devices, milk conductivity indicators, automatic estrus detection monitors and daily bodyweight measurements are already being utilized by dairy producers.

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Despite its seemingly simplistic nature, the power of accurate milk weights should not be discounted in monitoring cows, as it is typically the first factor that changes when a problem develops. Other theoretical precision dairy farming technologies have been proposed to measure jaw movements, ruminal pH, reticular contractions, heart rate, animal positioning and activity, vaginal mucus electrical resistance, feeding behavior, lying behavior, odor, glucose, acoustics, progesterone, individual milk components, color (as an indicator of cleanliness), infrared udder surface temperatures and respiration rates.

Unfortunately, the development of technologies tends to be driven by availability of a technology, transferred from other industries in market expansion efforts, rather than by need. Relative to some industries, the dairy industry is relatively small, limiting corporate willingness to invest extensively in development of technologies exclusive to dairy farms. Many precision dairy farming technologies measure variables that could be measured manually, while others measure variables that could not have been obtained previously.

Despite widespread availability, adoption of even the existing technologies in the dairy industry has been relatively slow thus far. In fact, agricultural adoption of on-farm software packages, as a whole, has been much lower than predicted. The majority of information management systems available and utilized by dairy producers have vastly underutilized analytical capabilities. In practicality, their use is often limited to creating production tables, attention lists and working schedules. A summary of reasons for modest adoption rates of precision dairy farming technologies and dairy systems software, described in the literature, is provided in Table 1.

Perceived economic returns from investing in a new technology are likely the main factor influencing precision dairy farming technology adoption. Additional factors impacting technology adoption include degree of impact on resources used in the production process, level of management needed to implement the technology, risk associated with the technology, institutional constraints, producer goals and motivations, and having an interest in a specific technology.

Characteristics of the primary decision maker that influence technology adoption include age, level of formal education, learning style, goals, farm size, business complexity, increased tenancy, perceptions of risk, type of production, ownership of a non-farm business, innovativeness in production, overall expenditures on information and use of the technology by peers and other family members. It has also been demonstrated that technology adoption is improved when the technology fits within the normal daily work patterns of the personnel who will be using it.

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Discrepancies are much larger for technologies where the producer has to interpret information produced by the system. Farm operations with more specialization of labor are more likely to successfully adopt information technology. The most progressive producers will adopt those new technologies that appear to be profitable. When a proven technology is not adopted, the operation observes a lost opportunity cost that may lead to a competitive disadvantage.

Though precision dairy farming is in its infancy, new precision dairy farming technologies are introduced to the market each year. As new technologies are developed in other industries, engineers and animal scientists find applications within the dairy industry. More importantly, as these technologies are widely adopted in larger industries, such as the automobile or personal computing industries, the costs of the base technologies decrease, making them more economically feasible for dairy farms.

Because the bulk of research focused on precision dairy farming technologies is conducted in research environments, care must be taken in trying to transfer these results directly to commercial settings. Some of this difference can be attributed to removal of erroneous data from analysis of research data, which is not practical or useful in a commercial setting. Further, hardware maintenance and upkeep may be a higher priority in research settings. Field experiments or simulations may need to be conducted to alleviate this issue.

Because of the gap between the impact of precision dairy farming technologies in research versus commercial settings, additional effort needs to be directed toward implementation of management practices needed to fully utilize information provided by these technologies. To gain a better understanding of technology adoption shortcomings, additional research needs to be undertaken to examine the adoption process for not only successful adoption of technology but also technology adoption failures.

Of course, as with any new technology or concept, controlled university research on precision dairy farming will occur simultaneously with on-farm adoption by daring early-adopters. Before investing in a new technology, a formal investment analysis should be conducted to make sure that the technology is right for your farm’s needs. In the future, precision dairy farming technologies may change the way you manage your dairy herd. Certainly, the potential is exciting! PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

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Jeffrey Bewley
Extension Educator
University of Kentucky

and

Mike Schutz
Purdue University
For Progressive Dairyman

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