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How to determine if a technology is right for your dairy

Dave Lahr Published on 16 September 2010

Dairies have been adopting new technologies for generations. Our grandparents or great-grandparents may have been among the first in the area to use a milking machine or A.I. Can you imagine dairying today without bulk tanks and refrigeration, or automatic waterers? Now, robotic milkers and computerized calf feeding systems are becoming common. Makes you wonder what tools the next generation of progressive dairies will use.

Which brings us to some critical questions: How do you, as a dairy manager, decide which technologies are right for your operation? Do you go with something that has the most enticing advertising? Or the one recently purchased by the most innovative dairy you know?

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Since the right decision is not the same for all operations, you will need to do some evaluation. Good information is essential in making good decisions about a new (or current) technology. You will need to ask questions of yourself, the vendor and sometimes other unaffiliated parties (lenders, consultants, peers, etc.). Remember that unaffiliated parties are not necessarily unbiased, because everyone has biases based on their experiences, preferences and “stake in the game.”

Your veterinarian and nutritionist are important resources, but they can’t know about all the new technologies – there’s too much out there. And it’s natural to discount the value of the unfamiliar, sometimes resulting in a good idea being thrown under the bus. So you may need to do some of your own digging.

Evaluate costs, risks and success
Here are some questions you should ask when evaluating new (or new to you) technology. Not all questions apply to each operation, technology or decision.

1. What will it cost?
a. Capital outlay
b. Support, maintenance or ongoing per-cow or per-person costs
c. Labor
d. Training
e. Other required “upgrades”

Not all costs are readily apparent. Software may require new computer hardware, or new wiring may be needed for the automated calf milk- feeding system. Alternatively, some costs may be offset by savings in other areas.

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2. What are the expected results, and value?
a. Milk production, components, reproduction, health
b. Direct cost savings
c. Time or labor savings
d. Risk reduction/regulatory compliance
e. Employee safety, satisfaction, and retention

Results can bring value in many areas. Some may be more difficult to quantify.

3. How will we measure and evaluate the results of our decision?

4. Will it replace something that already needs replacement?
If so, the cost is only the “upgrade cost,” not the entire cost.

5. How confident are we that our operation will realize the expected result(s)?
a. Research
b. Results at other dairies

Your results may vary from other dairies or from research because you may have different needs or practices. How much and what kind of supporting information and research you need should depend on the cost, the risk and your level of trust in the vendor. You don’t need a million dollars of research to support a $1,000 decision.

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6. What is the risk?
a. Unrecoverable losses if it doesn’t work for us
b. Warranties, guarantees

For example, can you get a partial refund of capital costs by returning equipment?

7. What is the negative risk?
That is, what might we lose if we don’t use this technology? Should I think of this as protection or “insurance” against a loss?

8. Can we use partial budgeting to estimate the return on this decision?
As much as possible, compare the costs and benefits to see if it adds to your bottom line.

9. Who will use this technology in our operation?
Do they have (or can they gain) the ability or expertise to use it effectively? Am I willing to send them to training? Will I empower these individuals to use this decision-making tool?

10. Am I (or are we) an innovator, early adopter or follower? Will we be “guinea pigs” for this technology or application?
a. What are the advantages to being a test?
b. Risks
c. Is our dairy well-suited to be a guinea pig (innovator)?

Some dairies are great innovators, because they have the temperament to work through the sometimes not-so-smooth process of ironing out the wrinkles. Others need everything to be very predictable and concise from the beginning.

After you have answers to the applicable questions, you can better make a decision that will give you satisfaction when looking through the lens of 20/20 hindsight.

Important technologies to consider
Let’s look at some key areas. Since not all dairies need the same technologies, we’ll try to look at the next possible step for different types of operations, and some under-used old technology. Many of these technologies are widely used on dairies today but will be new to others. This list is certainly not exhaustive.

1. Communication technologies help you better communicate with your employees, vendors, key support people and customers and allow you to get up-to-date information on products, management practices and markets.

E-mail, Internet and mobile phones are essential for modern business, regardless of size. Many dairies should have Wi-Fi or wireless Internet capabilities (with appropriate security) so vendor reps and support personnel can connect to the Internet on your site and bring you current information. Most medium to large dairies should have Wi-Fi phones or other two-way devices to easily communicate within your business. Some should consider audio-visual teleconferencing technology, which is especially valuable for dairies with long-distance owners or consultants. It’s a big travel and time-saver for dairy team meetings.

2. Monitoring and decision-making tools help track what is happening with cows, feed, inventory and people. Then, those tools help you and your employees make decisions that fit your business plan, goals and management style.

Nearly all dairies need production monitoring, ranging from DHI to on-site computerized daily monitoring. Cow management tools like DairyComp and others are invaluable in making fact-based decisions on feeding and reproductive strategies, culling, etc. Some sites have invested in the equipment and training for their own pregnancy ultrasound.

Many operations get excellent returns with feed tracking and inventory monitors. Often, suppliers offer spreadsheets or other analytical tools to help make feeding, health or reproductive decisions.

One cutting-edge tool provides the ability to measure forage moisture or other nutrients at the loader, integrated with feed batching, to automatically adjust rations based on the forage being used in this batch of TMR.

3. Is automated liquid calf feeding and monitoring equipment in your future? Or maybe robotic milkers? Carefullyreview the types of products and their strengths and weaknesses. Visit several dairies that are using them to help decide if they are right for your operation.

4. Corn hybrids with higher fiber digestibility or starch availability will make your nutritionist happy, and improve your bottom line. Sexed semen is especially valuable if planning expansion, for use on specific, high genetic-potential cows, or if heifer sales are part of your business. With the genetic and safety advantages of A.I., and the heat detection and reproductive management tools available, I am amazed at the number of bulls still used on dairies.

5. Many feed and nutrition products, strategies and additives are available to meet specific needs or challenges. Some of them fit very specific applications, challenges or needs, while others can have an every-cow, every-day application. Do you have a seasonal issue with a health challenge? Fresh cow transition problems? Heat stress? Short-term-use products can provide cost-effective solutions.

If ration formulation and/or nutrient levels are involved in the application of the technology under consideration, you will need closer coordination with your nutritionist than if the product is an additive that does not require ration reformulation. Regardless, your nutritionist is a valuable resource for all types of feed additives and should be kept “in the loop.”

• Nutritional products: rumen-protected vitamins and amino acids, chelated trace minerals.
• Digestion efficiency products: enzymes (and microbial products that provide them)
• Rumen modulators: ionophores and direct-fed microbials
• Immune stimulators: botanicals and certain kinds of yeast fractions
• Feed storage and quality: forage inoculants, mold inhibitors, flow agents
• Cow health: fresh cow drenches
• Heat stress: internal heat-stress relief products

Your decision to implement a given technology should be based on facts, evidence and a cost-versus-risk analysis. Keep an open mind to minimize bias. But also ask the hard questions, especially if there is significant risk in the case of the technology failing to provide the desired benefit. PD

Dave Lahr
  • Dave Lahr

  • Nutritionist
  • Form-A-Feed
  • TechMix LLC
  • Email Dave Lahr

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