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How will the industry change in the next decade?

Jack Rodenburg Published on 28 December 2009

In Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, several dairy producers get up in the morning with full confidence that they know who is pregnant, who is cystic and who is in heat without consulting a veterinarian, or conducting any kind of invasive examination. They will consult their computer for this information, and at the same time they will receive flags of likely new clinical mastitis cases and cows with subclinical ketosis.

They are the owners of test herds for a new “in line” milk sampling and analysis system called Herd Navigator, developed by a team of Danish companies and marketed by DeLaval. In parlors up to a double-12, the system automatically samples selected cows at each milking and analyzes the milk sample for progesterone, LDH (Lactate Dehydrogenase), BHB (Beta-hydroxybuterate) and/or MUN (milk urea nitrogen). Test results are summarized and reported through the herd management software, which also defines and applies the testing schedule to provide the best possible information.

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MUN, which is already available as a lab test through several milk recording agencies, is a valuable indicator of how cows are using the protein in their ration. Too low and she needs more, too high and she is either fed to excess or she is using it inefficiently as an energy source. BHB is a ketone that provides a very good indicator of how well the liver is coping with the demand for energy in early lactation. High milk levels of BHB will identify cows with clinical and subclinical ketosis. When BHB is too high, treatment for ketosis is warranted and when the majority of early lactation cows are borderline or high, feeding management changes to increase feed intake in fresh cows or increase energy level in the ration are required. Research studies using LDH suggest it is the best early indicator of clinical mastitis we have.

European farmers that are field-testing this in-line milk sampling system say it is identifying cows that need attention three or four days sooner than they would find them with traditional observation and management. So what’s the value of finding and treating a new clinical mastitis case a day earlier, and what can we gain by treating a subclinical ketosis cow differently? We really won’t know until we have much more experience with these tools, but it would seem that this has a great deal of potential.

But the most obvious benefit for an in-line milk sampling system will be in managing reproduction. In-line progesterone testing on-demand is an absolute dream come true in terms of improving reproductive monitoring. In the cow’s reproductive cycle, progesterone in blood and in milk is low when a cow is not cycling, and when she is in heat. It is high between heats, when she has a luteal cyst and when she is pregnant. Except for luteal cysts and pregnancies, repeated tests can differentiate between all of these conditions.

Kits for cow-side progesterone testing have been available for more than 20 years, as they have been for ketosis as well, but when you add up the work of scheduling the sampling, identifying the cow at milking, taking the milk sample, performing the test, recording the results and interpreting them, the effort required is more than the results are worth. An in-line milk sampling system does all of the above work. When it is linked to existing parlor automation like sort gates, the cow to be bred could be waiting for you in the sort pen after milking. With accurate information on the status of most cows, pregnancy rates will be higher and veterinary herd health visits will be limited to looking at problem cows.

In-line milk sampling systems are just one of many new sensor-based tools that will revolutionize how we manage the dairy herd of the future. New pedometers that measure standing and lying time information as well as activity, show great promise as a tool for early identification of lame cows; neck-mounted pedometers that measure ruminations can identify sick cows, monitor adequacy of ration fiber, and perhaps predict time of calving eight to 10 hours ahead of time. Rumen boluses that measure body temperature will flag cows with infections, and may predict calving as far as 24 to 36 hours ahead of time.

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Other sensor-based systems such as radio frequency identification, lasers and digital scales play a vital role in the application of automation such as robotic milking, automated calf feeding and collection of herd management information with handheld RFID readers. Robotics, which take the labor out of applying individual cow management, make it possible to use all the individual cow data collected with sensors to manage individual cows more accurately. For example, in a robotic milking stall it is possible to ID the cow, weigh her with digital scales, determine her production level and milk composition and quality and then allocate a unique milking schedule and grain feeding level based on individual cow data.

On highly automated dairies in Ontario, Canada, the use of these tools has led to dramatic improvement in efficiency. There are now several Ontario dairy herds with 100 to 400 cows, robotic milking and well-designed newer barns, which also incorporate pedometry, automated calf-feeding systems, robotic slat scrapers and other technologies. These barns are producing 1,500 to 1,800 pounds of milk per hour of labor. One 350-cow herd operates with the equivalent of three full-time employees or 115 milking cows, plus dry cows and replacements per man. These dairy farms are putting out about 2.8 million pounds of milk per man per year.

Dairy industry leaders in Ontario, Canada, have decided that they need to know more about this rapidly emerging trend in dairy automation and they have planned the First North American Conference on Precision Dairy Management to explore the practical potential of these technologies. The conference will be held March 2-5, 2010 in Toronto and will include presentations by more than 40 scientists working in this field, including NASA astronaut Roberta Bondar, who will speak at the banquet. A producer panel featuring four innovative producers using robotic milking and other precision technologies will share their experiences, and the event will wrap up with a tour of innovative robotic dairies in southwestern Ontario. At www.precisiondairy2010.com, more details about the conference can be found. Innovative producers and industry leaders from across North America should attend this one-time event. PD

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