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Editorial advisers: Evaluating and using technology

Progressive Dairyman Editor Dave Natzke Published on 24 August 2018

With low milk prices and tight margins, most dairies might not have much appetite for new investments these days, but that doesn’t mean adoption of new technology has stopped.

We asked our editorial advisers to explain how they evaluate the potential value of new technologies to their dairies, using examples of technologies they’ve adopted over the past several years.

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Some common themes

All of our editorial advisers categorized themselves as “early adopters,” willing to try new technologies after they’ve started to see trial results. They’re willing to take risks, but want to make sure many of the “kinks” are worked out before they invest.

All also expressed a comfort level in self-evaluating technologies, although many seek input from other family members, consultants and fellow producers.

Almost all note that the “bottom line” for a given technology is, well, the bottom line: return on investment. Improved operating efficiency is also important.

Lynda FosterLynda Foster
Foster Dairy
Fort Scott, Kansas

Herd: 180 commercial Holstein cows milked in three robotic units

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Robotic milkers add to cow care

When I try new things, I have to really look at the initial costs, especially now when cash flow is so tight and milk prices are so low. I want a return on investment, but right now cash flow is almost more important.

The most recent technology we’ve adopted is the robot milkers. The labor savings is nice, but I would probably put more emphasis on the operation running more efficiently. Since we’ve gone to robots, it’s a whole new ballgame on management and finding those efficiencies.

It’s been a real trial-and-error time for us. I think part of that is because, in Kansas, robots are very new, and our service tech is learning along with us. This makes for slow going, but at least we have a great service company trying hard to get up to speed to help us.

While the robots present a lot of challenges on the management side, they also give us a ton of daily information we didn’t have before. I think they have been a success, as our time is more flexible.

You still find yourself spending a lot of time with the robots and the cows, but production per cow is much better than what we could get before the robots, and I feel the cows are healthier as a result of more individual care. We can detect things faster and have more time to take care of individual cows as needed.

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Dave JauquetDave Jauquet
Jauquet’s Hillview Dairy
Luxemburg, Wisconsin

Herd: 650 registered Holsteins milked in a double-16 parallel parlor

Economic and other benefits important

We like to read about new technologies, or hear about them from fellow producers or sales consultants, and then evaluate how they could fit into our regimen. Lots of new ideas get tossed around but, at the end of the day, it needs to get paid for somehow. Is that increased revenue, reduced expense or a combination of the two?

However, some investments cannot be measured only in dollars and cents. Sometimes improvements are made for the environment, neighbor relations or animal welfare. These types of projects pay huge dividends that will hopefully last longer than Stacy and me.

The biggest technology shift we’ve made in the past few years is the way we feed cows. The advancements in amino acid profiling and the way we look at balancing diets have evolved very rapidly. These steps have helped us achieve improvements in health and productivity, and they will project us forward to the goals we have waiting for us on the horizon.

Bill RowellBill Rowell
Green Mountain Dairy
Sheldon, Vermont

Herd: 900 commercial Holstein cows milked in double-15 parallel parlor

Technology evaluation includes many factors

The level of importance or need will typically influence your response (to a technology). While most of us prefer to see technology prove itself first, time is often a factor, and the decision you make may find you with a prototype that falls short of its promise.

When evaluating new technology, give it a good workout along with the sales representative; it may prove itself or reveal something – either way you benefit from the experience.

We are always looking for improvement, questioning the potential of something to improve our farm, routine practices or the bottom line. We are interested in its cost, where it was manufactured, its reliability, useful life, time on the market, potential problems, location of the nearest dealer, parts and service availability, warranty information and business reputation.

Twelve years ago, we commissioned a digester project to handle our manure waste stream. A few years back we began using a dragline operation; digested manure is easily pumped for up to 2 miles utilizing this equipment.

Positive attributes associated with this practice include reduced soil compaction, substantial fuel reduction, minimal potential for runoff, soil captures nitrogen, no tractors/spreaders on highway, reduced hours spreading manure and reduced farm traffic, noise, dust and odor.

Aaron WickstromAaron Wickstrom
Wickstrom Dairies
Hilmar, California

Herd: 2,400 Jersey cows milked in 50-cow rotary

Technology aids communication, labor efficiency

We’re an early adopter of technology and comfortable with evaluating its potential. Any new technology we adopt must make the operation run more efficiently and provide a return on investment.

The two most recent technologies we’ve adopted are Slack, for communication for our entire team, and installing Lely Juno feed push-up robots in all of our freestall barns.

Slack allowed all of our team to be on the same page for what is going on in the operation. It sped up communication with everybody on the farm and reduced the wasted time of making multiple phone calls. Now we use Slack to communicate those same things to the whole team or use its channel feature to communicate just to specific people in a certain area of the operation.

The Juno robots have been a great way to reduce labor. Prior to implementing them, I calculated we were spending the equivalent of 1.5 man days pushing up feed every day. Feed is now pushed up robotically every 90 minutes. We’ve noticed much less variation in dry matter intakes, even during our really hot summers here in California.

Troy BreyTony Brey
Brey Cycle Farm
Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

Herd: 450 registered Holstein cows milked in swing-9 parlor

Technology expands management efficiency

We’re always looking to learn and grow but rely on our mentors and other contacts to learn as much as we can about (a technology). The need for specific change comes first in our thought process, with return on investment being the decision-maker as to whether we’re willing to invest in the change. In this economy, we need to remain focused on that bottom line.

For us, investing in people is part of our business model. So, while we want to make our employees comfortable and efficient, we are not necessarily looking for ways to cut down on labor in large strides. We do focus on things running more efficiently and for Jacob, my brother, and me to be able to manage multiple areas of the business without necessarily doing all of the physical labor.

For the last three years, we have used BoviSynch for our herd analysis. This has improved efficiency. Any team member can access reports and make changes from any location.

This has allowed us to give more responsibility to other members of our team and share information with experts as we continually work to improve. Additionally, we also use the price transparency tool as part of our subscription to Farmer’s Business Network. These two platforms have helped us to make educated decisions quickly.

Katie dotterer-PyleKatie Dotterer-Pyle
Cow Comfort Inn Dairy
Union Bridge, Maryland

Herd: 350-cow Holstein and Jersey herd milked in double-12 herringbone parlor

Repro, calf programs improved

It really depends on access to money to implement a technology. We ask a lot of questions and do some research, especially on any differences there might be for our Jersey herd. It's also important to know there is assistance after implementing the technology with troubleshooting, repairs, etc.

Return on investment is the number one thing we use to evaluate a technology. It has to make us money or improve something in a big way.

Two recent technologies we’ve adopted include:

  • Activity monitoring. We’re no longer relying on timed A.I. protocols and don’t have to hire additional labor to observe estrus. Hormone shots are minimal, and we’re breeding off of natural heats.

  • Automatic calf feeders. I was totally against them at first, but I’m glad I was proven wrong. Our calves grow very well on them, and the weaning process is way better than what we used to do. It also cuts labor costs.

Brandon TreichlerBrandon Treichler
Veterinarian
Select Milk Producers
Canyon, Texas

Consults with 100-plus dairies

Technology impacts consulting relationships

I am always looking for and reviewing technologies that can benefit my practice and my clients’ dairies. For me, technology evaluation is the classic cost-versus-benefit or risk of the technology. Perhaps it is because I’m a veterinarian but, for me to feel comfortable, I need to understand the basic idea about how the technology works and how it will fit into our programs.

I adopted several different technologies for my milk quality practice that have changed the way I structure consulting visits. All of my milking equipment testing and observations are now digital. They are easier to share with all the dairy stakeholders and streamline my visits, allowing me to be more productive in my time on the dairy. It also makes building follow-up reports better and allows me easy access to the historical data.  end mark

Dave Natzke
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