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Dairy producers use video conferencing, smartphone technology

Terri Queck-Matzie for Progressive Dairyman Published on 23 November 2016
Dr. Sara Barber (on the right)

Digital video communication is changing life down on the farm. Dairymen are using the latest technology like never before, enhancing their operations in ways they could not have predicted just a few short years ago.

“Today’s producers are smart and educated. They’re hands-on and want to make the best use of their time,” says Dr. Sara Barber, DVM, with Veterinary Medical Center/Prairie Livestock Supply in Worthington, Minnesota. Barber’s client base stretches 200 miles or more in any one direction, making digital communication essential to providing quality service.

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She schedules regular on-farm visits, but animal health problems rarely follow a set schedule. In the meantime, she gets dozens of calls or texts each week, often with accompanying photo or video.

With that visual information, she is often able to make a preliminary diagnosis. And that means beginning treatment sooner or avoiding a problem that could spread throughout the herd.

“If we didn’t have this option, we would most likely just wait two weeks until her regular visit,” says Tami Tracy, one of Barber’s customers. Tracy operates the 500-cow Brockshus Dairy near Ocheyedan, Iowa, along with her father and brothers, where she oversees around 50 heifer calves at any given time.

“If I have a problem with a calf, a leg injury or skin problem, I can send Sara a video or picture. She can often prescribe treatment from that, then check up on the issue when she comes for her every-other-week visit.”

Tracy also does her own posting of dead animals and is able to send photos to the vet, as does Dan Bakker at Rock Bottom Dairy near Rock Rapids, Iowa, where they milk 1,100 cows.

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“I was leery about doing it before because you don’t always know what you’re looking at,” Bakker says. “But knowing I can send a picture of anything suspicious and get the questions answered has made it much more doable.”

“It’s much easier than trying to explain or describe a problem,” says Tom Zweep, a calf producer from Garretson, South Dakota. Along with his family’s cow-calf operation, he feeds calves to finish, and health issues with each new group are not uncommon.

“If it is something I’ve not seen before, I can just send a video. The vet can get a handle on the problem before it spins out of control.”

He and Barber were recently able to diagnosis a calf with a brain tumor and spare the animal further suffering. Also, a bout with salmonella was stopped in its tracks before it wreaked havoc.

The approach has limitations. “Nothing can replace the vet seeing the animal in person,” Tracy says. “Accurate diagnosis often involves what something smells or sounds like.”

“She can’t take the animal’s temperature or listen to its lungs,” Zweep adds. “But she can actually see what’s going on.”

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Increasing efficiency

Aside from being able to get a jump-start on treatment, the video diagnosis saves the cost of an unscheduled on-farm visit.

And it saves time – on both ends. “Even the simplest of vet visits is going to take at least 20 minutes,” Tracy says. “Sending a photo or text takes seconds.”

For Barber, the time savings enables her to serve more clients more effectively. Dairies in her service area can be as far as three hours away, making it not just impractical but impossible to travel to each site for every problem.

Scheduled visits enable her to develop herd protocols and identify potential problems as well as check up on video diagnoses and treatment progress. Along with video texts and Facetime sessions with clients, she often gets messages with video from animal health supply salesmen.

“Producers will ask them questions as they are making their on-farm calls,” she explains. “They can check with me for an answer.”

Barber says the digital communication option is attractive to new vets at Veterinary Medical Center/Prairie Livestock Supply. “They’re excited when they start and we give them their new iPhone. They like that we’ve embraced the technology. They like the efficiency.”

That efficiency is key to Barber’s practice. Not only is her service area spread out across three states, but the mother of three practices part-time. “I can take a call and deal with a problem from home,” Barber says. “I can communicate via my smartphone, computer or laptop any time and any day.”

With thousands of photos and videos in her files, Barber is hoping new apps are coming to help with organization. She uses Dropbox to back up files. The app enables her to create various files and allows client access.

There are new efforts in data sharing and organization, like AgriSync, a downloadable app that connects producers with financial managers, crops specialists, equipment experts and veterinarians by providing video support via the producer’s smartphone.

Not only can users set up a video appointment, send video or still photos and receive a diagnosis and treatment advice, but the app provides notifications and saves all photos and communications for future reference.

“I’m all for anything that’s more efficient,” Barber says, “and my clients are too.”

It’s not just for vets

For Tracy, video communication goes beyond simplifying a vet call. “We use it in many ways,” she says. “With four of us involved in the operation, there is a lot of communication between us.” That may be a quick text or sending a photo.

She says her dad has a phone full of “notes” to himself that may be as simple as a photo of a cow’s eartag to remind him to tend to an issue when he gets back to the office. “Before we had smartphones, we had to write the number on the back of our hand with a pen,” she laughs.

Digital photos and videos enable Zweep’s mother to keep watch over the bucket/bottle calves kept near her house. “Every day, I get a video wanting to know if something looks right, or if she should be worried. I can tell her what to do or stop by and treat it later.”

Zweep, his father and brother farm 2,000 acres of cropland in addition to the cattle operation. Their daily activities can sometimes stretch more than 100 miles apart.

He can manage his calves from the combine and, if he breaks down, can send a video of the part to one of the others in town at the implement store.

Tracy also finds video invaluable in communicating with Brockshus Dairy’s non-English-speaking employees. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” she says. Employees may send a photo or video of an animal stuck in a compromising situation or a broken part.

She has made training videos showing how to properly use cleaning supplies or animal care protocols. “Sometimes we play our best game of charades to overcome the language barrier. Pictures help.

“There’s so much more that can be done to make communication even easier,” Tracy continues. “Things we haven’t even thought of yet. With the technology that exists, the possibilities are endless.”  end mark

Terri Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer from Fontanelle, Iowa

PHOTO: As a vet with Veterinary Medical Center/Prairie Livestock Supply in Worthington, Minnesota, Dr. Sara Barber (right) makes regular rounds to visit her clients, some more than 200 miles away. In between visits, they communicate through texts, photos and videos, enabling her to address problems as they arise. Photo courtesy Sara Barber.

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