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Are pen-level insights the future for large dairies?

Aidan Connolly for Progressive Dairy Published on 25 August 2021

Larger farms struggle to effectively use individual cow alerts because there is little they can do to turn the information into action, but they are instead increasingly using pen-level insights to drive management decisions.

In practice, producers don’t feed individual cows – they feed a group in a pen or total herd, and the aim is to drive feed efficiencies of the entire herd and have consistent and solid feeding routines.

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Large dairy farms (especially those over 5,000 cows) are increasingly discarding individual cow management in favor of group metrics to get a better grip on feed management, health, welfare and cow comfort. Technologies reaching the farm gate are reflecting this shift.

The last five years have seen a rise in the number of cow wearables (IoT devices) coming to the dairy market, aimed to measure things such as estrus, lying time and rumination time on an individual cow basis. Over 60 manufacturers now supply cow Fitbits, collars, smart eartags, rumen boluses, tail monitors. “And this is very useful information,” said Dr. Trevor DeVries, professor at the University of Guelph, at a recent webinar. DeVries explained that individual cow-based monitoring is obviously crucial to determine the best moment for insemination, but he thinks that when dealing with health and feeding management, group-level insights might be more practical and useful, especially for large dairies.

Kevin Hoogendoorn, a consulting veterinarian who has managed a 2,800-cow dairy in Iowa, agreed on the same webinar. “It is important to identify those few cows that have a displaced abomasum (DA) or mastitis or whatever. But the more important question to us, from a management standpoint is: What are we doing, or what should we have done to prevent that in the first place? Managing that information at the herd/group level is becoming recognized as more important these days.”

Consolidation drives pen management

As dairy farms become larger, the shift from individual cow monitoring to group monitoring is becoming more obvious. “From a health issue perspective such as loose manure or bad feet, the first thing many dairy advisers ask the farmer is how many cows (percentage in the herd) have this problem. In other words, we already look at groups and percentages in large dairies. This is because these pen/group-level insights give farmers a quick and broad picture that everything is running well,” Hoogendoorn said.

Tyler Bramble of Cainthus says, “Monitoring what’s happening at pen level rather than for individual dairy cows is proving to be the best approach for producers with more than 1,000 cows. It allows them to prevent and predict health or feeding issues, and hence increase farm profitability, with a focus on the average cow rather than an individual. The ‘power of the pen’ philosophy is leading to changes in how farms feed, vaccinate, manage their cows and improve animal health and cow comfort. Although group management is not new per se, new types of technologies, such as the use of cameras in the barn, is enabling and accelerating this trend by giving farmers actionable pen metrics and insights to work with. The use of cameras is easily scalable, with low level of maintenance and breakdown.”

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Better control over feeding

None of this should be a surprise. While we want to manage individual cows, inevitably nutrition decisions, vaccination, design of the barns, bedding choices and more are all a function of managing for the group and not an individual cow. Smart camera technology arrival in the barn and the milking parlor continues to grow. Smart cameras are ideal for dairies because they can monitor pens 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, without having to be attached to the cow. Cameras detect trends and anomalies – such as health or feeding issues – at the pen level at an early stage, identifying the warning signs. There should always be enough feed in front of the cows to maximize milk production per pound of dry matter (DM).

In practice, producers don’t feed individual cows – they feed a group in a pen or total herd, and the aim is to drive feed efficiencies of the entire herd and have consistent and solid feeding routines. Cameras are now being used on U.S. farms to detect feed availability, and this information helps to identify the pens, or even sections within the pens, with low feed and allows farmers to prioritize where to have feed delivered right away. The ability to target which pens or places in the pen need feed the most can also reduce the time between clean-out and feed delivery and can save on feed costs.

Steve Maddox Jr. of Maddox Dairy in Riverdale, California, is one of the farmers who is using these metrics in practice. “The camera insights show me which pen needs attention right away and confirm that specific cows love to eat in one spot of the feedbunk more than others. As a result, the feeders now drop more feed where cows like to eat. As managers of a large dairy, you have to find ways to see things when you are not there. Now we can see exactly what is being done and when, which is beneficial for us.”

Managing cow time budgets

DeVries said he believes cows simply want consistency.

“It is all about making sure they all have access to feed, all the time, and have a lying spot. You don’t want too much variance,” he said. The lying time of high-yielding cows is, for example, crucial for maximizing milk production and their welfare and is set at a minimum of 12 hours per day. The out-of-pen time (time spent in the milking parlor) should be minimized. Each hour not spent at the feeding fence or resting and ruminating directly impacts health and performance.

“For large dairies, this type of information at the group level is crucial to keep an eye on production, health and welfare. If the farmer knows that, for example, 85% of the group have an average lying time of 12 hours or more, there is no need to intervene or take action. When out-of-pen time is too high on average, for example more than four hours per day, it can lead to more lameness. Then the recommendation to change the milking routine or waiting time before milking can be made,” Bramble said.

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“The targets differ per farm,” Bramble said. “Cow wearables help increase health and milk production, but they are more focused on picking up the broken or sick cows. It doesn’t do much for the top-performing ones (as the sensor says they are doing great). Pen-level insights can help the farmer to increase the average milk production per cow, in both the low- and high-performing cows.”

Transforming farm profitability

Farmers have spent hundreds of years checking up on cows, monitoring feed deliveries and making sure workers are following best practices. While effective with herds of 20, 100 or even 200 cows, on larger dairies these time-consuming activities are slowly being replaced by time-saving technology and innovations to rule out human errors as farms increase in size. Larger farms require different technologies, and those with 1,000, 2,000 or especially 5,000 cows are unlikely to use technology that require substantial hardware investment or specialized labor to manage devices at a time when finding people to manage cows is already a challenge.

In my experience, larger farms in the U.S. and internationally also struggle to effectively use individual cow alerts because there is little they can do to turn the information into action, but instead increasingly use pen-level insights to drive management decisions. Rebalancing of when a producer needs to focus on the individual cow and when it is better to focus on the pen is being transformed by technology and data, and the profitability of our largest dairies is reflecting that. end mark

PHOTO: Mike Dixon.

As president of AgriTech Capital, Connolly evaluates and invests in promising ag technologies. He is also the CEO of Cainthus, a computer vision company for cows.

Aidan Connolly
  • Aidan Connolly

  • President
  • AgriTech Capital

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