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Producer roundtable: Rumination and activity monitoring systems

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 23 May 2014

Cow monitoring technologies bring real-time data to the dairy, finding their place as a tool for both reproductive management and herd health.

Three dairymen who installed rumination and activity monitoring systems last year share their experiences and advice.

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Roundtable participants:

Steve Abel
  • Steve Abel

  • Abel Dairy Farms LLC
  • Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
  • 1,600 cows
  • System: Heatime HR LD
  • Installation: August 2013
Clint Burkholder
  • Clint Burkholder

  • Burk-lea Farms
  • Chambersburg, Pennsylvania
  • 750 cows
  • System: ai24
  • Installation: October 2013
Sam Chapin
  • Sam Chapin

  • Chapin Family Farms LLC
  • Remus, Michigan
  • 690 cows
  • System: Heatime
  • Installation: January 2013

Which cows get collars on your dairy?

ABEL: We decided to collar the entire herd of cows, plus all of the breeding-age heifers. At 11 months, we put them on the heifers. After the heifer is confirmed pregnant, we take the collar off before they leave for the next pen. We put collars back on when they come to the dairy as springing heifers.

BURKHOLDER: All adult cows have collars, and we are putting tags on heifers at two months prefresh.

Using the rumination, we can have a baseline when they are in the dry period of their rumination. As soon as they calve, we are using that to monitor how fresh cows are doing instead of taking temperatures. Labor was the other factor in why we collared all cows.

I didn’t want to keep taking collars off. We put 800 collars on from the get-go. We also have a Westphalia tag for parlor identification and milk weights. It fits on the same neck strap, so we have two tags on the same collar.

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CHAPIN: I put collars on when I move far-off cows to the close-up dry cow pen. They do not come off the cows until they are verified pregnant. That said, 2-year-olds do not get a collar until they
have freshened.

At first, I did not start using collars on the dry cows. The main reason I started was because Heatime has a rumination feature. The dry cows have the collar on for about three weeks, and I get a good baseline for rumination.

We can see where the cow calves, and 90 percent of the time you will see rumination drop significantly. Essentially, we can monitor rumination so it comes back up to the level she needs to be or give her support if she needs it.

How is your system working so far?

ABEL: It’s been an improvement across the board. The biggest improvements are in the heifers. We were never really happy with the pregnancy rate on our heifers. We felt there was an opportunity there. We were always in the low to mid-30s for pregnancy rates on our heifers. Since the collars have been installed, we have been averaging in the mid-40s. It turned out to be one of the best moves we made. It’s a no-brainer.

As far as the milking herd, everything has improved – pregnancy rate, percentage of herd pregnant, cows pregnant by 150 days in milk. Conception rate has stayed the same; the reason for that is because we are just breeding more cows.

We also monitor herd health with the rumination system. My herd manager uses it to monitor fresh cow health. We don’t take temperatures on cows nearly as much as we used to. Typically, the system will flag a cow as being off-feed before we visually see any signs the cow is sick.

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We know when a cow is off-feed, whereas before, we had to palpate them or visually watch that cow. Now, we have a history of when that cow went off feed and how drastically off she is.

BURKHOLDER: We are very pleased with the system. The pregnancy and conception rates have seen double-digit increases. We were in the low 20s on pregnancy rate, and now we are in the 30s.

As far as herd health, it is showing us cows that need attention. The vet comes every Monday for vet check and fresh check. Now, the herdsman can see if rumination is off of the average, and we can start treating her earlier and sooner.

Sometimes my herdsman can see a change in the cow before it shows up on the rumination monitor. We think we can still see some of those cows faster than they come up on the rumination monitor, but it is definitely helpful when you run 700 cows and you can’t be around all of them at the same time.

CHAPIN: Absolutely awesome. If someone asks me if we would ever go back to doing Presynch/Ovsynch and waking up at 2 a.m. to give shots, I say never. I would never go back. It’s changed the way we do things on our farm in a positive way.

One of the biggest positive changes is time management. We used to rely heavily on visual heat and using timed A.I. as well. At times, we were relying on the guys scraping and milking to catch cows in heat. We weren’t doing as good of a job as we could have been doing. This system has made up for all of that.

Where are your readers located?

ABEL: We have a long-distance system. One reader reads our entire dairy facility, but we have two readers in case one would go down. The two readers are mounted on the outside of the parlor, so it will pick up all of the barns.

That way, we have live data all the time; we aren’t waiting for a cow to walk past the reader or come to the holding area to get read. We also have a reader on our heifer facility located two miles away. That information is sent back to the dairy, and it all goes to one software package.

BURKHOLDER: Two wi-fi readers cover the farm. They don’t have to go through the parlor for the information to record. It transmits to one of the two different readers.

CHAPIN: In our system, the cows walk under a reader in the parlor after they are milked. We have wireless Internet in our barn. SCR knows right away if a reader goes down. We have awesome support to make sure those readers are working.

Have you changed any of your breeding protocols since installing a rumination and activity monitoring system?

ABEL: Before we put the system in, about 80 percent of our herd was timed A.I. We are now into the low teens. Our goal is 10 percent. We were shooting for a significant reduction in drug usage.

Since we installed the system in the summertime, I was reluctant to totally stop timed A.I. on our cows. But it didn’t take me long to realize that the system was actually working better than our shot program. Within about four weeks, we had stopped all first-breeding timed A.I.

We only use timed A.I. now when we get to a cow that is more than 105 days in milk and has not had a breeding. Anestrous cows will get a CIDR or cows are lutalysed instead of put on timed A.I. If they are cystic, anestrous or not showing any kind of structure, we will give them a CIDR.

Otherwise, if they are cycling normally and everything appears to be OK, we typically give them a shot of Lutalyse, which is a lot cheaper than an OvSynch cycle and you get semen in them a week sooner.

BURKHOLDER: We didn’t change anything, as far as our shot protocols go. We kept our voluntary waiting period (VWP) the same. We didn’t cut out any Lutalyse shots yet. That is our next goal. I didn’t want to make any changes I couldn’t see. We are still doing timed A.I. breeding, but at the same time, we are picking up those cows during the week.

We breed every Friday morning. Instead of having to watch for heats, we are looking at the computer and it tells us which cows to breed. We’ve had such good success. I want to change the Lutalyse shot so we do not have as many. Eventually, that is where some of the savings will come from – the drug costs.

CHAPIN: We still do some shots, but we no longer do timed A.I. We have a VWP of 60 days for cows and 70 days for heifers. If we don’t see a cow in heat by 90 days, we will bring them up on our herd health list and we will have the vet check them.

If the cow has a CL, we will give her Estrumate and breed her off of that shot. If the cow is cystic, we will do a CIDR synch on her. That’s what we have gone to, and it’s worked out really well for us.

Sometimes you will get cows that showed a heat 40 days in milk (DIM) but she hasn’t shown one since. For whatever reason, we need to help her with a CIDR or Estrumate shot. Some other people may wait until 100 DIM, but we are a little more aggressive and want to make sure we get the ball rolling with some of these girls.

What are the greatest benefits of this technology on your dairy?

ABEL: Three things come to mind. One, what it has done to my average days-on-feed for my heifers. We weren’t bad before; we are just better now. We have dropped it around 10 days. At $2.50 per day, that comes out to a savings of $25 per animal. It doesn’t take long to pay for the collar.

The second one is the amount of hormone usage we have been able to drop in the herd. And third would be the rumination in combination with the activity side. It has helped us to improve herd health. It’s not just about getting cows pregnant; there’s more to it. Unlike the former systems that were just looking to catch cows in heat, there is much more to it than that.

Another benefit is we no longer have a lot of cows to breed on “OvSynch Day.” We used to have a significant number of cows to breed on a Thursday or Friday. Now you have very few on a single day because they are spread throughout the week.

A single technician can handle breeding cows every day compared to before when we needed two breeding technicians to get cows bred in a timely manner so they weren’t locked up for an extended period of time. Now we just have one technician.

CHAPIN: The most useful information for us is related to breeding. Heatime is set up with some standard reports that are displayed constantly. It will have an anestrus cow report and a report that looks at possible cystic cows.

The biggest use of the information is being able to monitor their activity and knowing when that cow started to come into heat and being able to breed her at the proper time. On our farm, we breed twice a day. We are really able to zero in on the best time to breed cows. With this system, you know exactly when that cow started coming into heat.

On the health side, with Heatime, the biggest help is with the fresh cows. Having those collars on the postfresh pen and knowing their normal rumination and activity levels, we are able to monitor the bounce-back after calving.

There is a report that displays significant drops in activity or rumination and gives the cow a score. Just by looking at that report, it tells you to at least go out and look at these animals. You investigate more than you would have before.

BURKHOLDER: The biggest thing is that it is another set of eyes. It is a tool that is very helpful. For a while, we tried to watch cows for standing heat because we thought that was beneficial. We are no longer doing that.

Probably the biggest benefit is labor savings – not having to watch for heats or not having to temp every fresh cow. The second thing, I just like the results we are getting: pregnant cows. Not that we weren’t getting cows pregnant before, but the consistency is better. Conception rate is better. However, we will see how it works during the heat of the summer.

What challenges have you experienced with your system?

ABEL: Any time you put a collar on an animal, that is a challenge. It is something else to manage. The labor savings we have from not giving shots now is basically spent putting collars on. For example, if we were spending an hour or two hours a week giving shots before, we are now spending that time taking collars off or putting them on.

BURKHOLDER: The biggest challenge is to decipher the information you are getting. For example, we just moved and regrouped some cows. It will be a challenge to figure out which cows are actually coming in heat because they will be running around in their new group until they get acclimated.

Yes, you’ve got another tool, and it’s helpful to know that rumination dropped, but how serious is it? We see a similar challenge after the hoof trimmer comes to the dairy. The herdsman expects to see more activity, but we may be missing some that are actually coming in heat.

CHAPIN: From the get-go, the biggest challenge is just making sure you are getting collars on the right way. For us, our collars read rumination, so they have to be placed in the correct spot behind the left ear. Once in a while, you have to deal with regular wear-and-tear on the buckles or collars that fall off. Cows are rough on things.

Other than that, it’s pretty pain-free. It hasn’t caused hardly any grief.

Have you been able to justify the cost of the technology with the results you are seeing?

ABEL: Yes. We initially assumed a 30-month payback on the system. Based on what I am seeing with average days on feed for heifers and some of the health benefits we get from monitoring rumination on the cows, I know that was a conservative number. It might actually be less than that.

BURKHOLDER: I think we can. We are getting really good results, but we really need to wait a year to really capture lower DIM or feed cost.

CHAPIN: Our average DIM have come down from the low 180s to mid-160s. For days open, we were around 130; we are down now to 115. If you are able to get your DIM and days open down and improve your percentage of pregnant cows, it all just translates to more milk. It definitely pays for itself.

What observations have you made from the data that surprised you?

ABEL: One of the things that surprised me was that I had anticipated the dry cows ruminating less than our milk cows, so keeping fresh feed in front of that group of cows all of the time was not as important as the milking cows.

But what I found through the rumination system was that dry cows actually ruminate more than the milking cows because of the ration we feed them. The data is something I can show my guys to say that it is important to keep fresh feed in front of dry cows all the time.

Also, when we can make a ration change and see instantly that rumination has improved in the herd, it just goes to show that all these subtle changes we make have an effect on the animals.

BURKHOLDER: It’s been a tool for the nutritionist as well. That is one thing I didn’t expect to get out of it. He gets the group ruminations twice a week. If the whole group is off, he sees that and we talk through it.

It may be that we are getting into a certain trench. At one point, we had some corn silage that wasn’t processed right, so we reprocessed it and when we started feeding it to the cows, it changed the amount of minutes they ruminated, across the board.

We can see when we make changes. Whether it is good or bad, we can see something is different with the cows. I would say we are a lot more aware of when we make changes and how it affects the cows, or we see rumination change and we start to ask questions. It helps us to think back, and it serves as a good reminder of why you should or shouldn’t do something.

CHAPIN: We have heard that sometimes after giving vaccines, cows don’t feel well. We found on our fresh cows that there was a vaccine we were giving at about three weeks fresh. We were getting one to three cows in our fresh pen that had a rumination drop every week around the same time, regularly.

When I was talking with our herdsman, we looked at when we gave the vaccination shot, and then we went back to the rumination graph. The day he gave that shot, that cow’s rumination crashed. This was happening in that window of two to three weeks fresh, when the cow is getting ready to really getting milking.

So we pushed the vaccination back. Where we were getting DAs on fresh cows and never knew why, all of a sudden we knew what to change to avoid them. Since adjusting, we have avoided that problem. That was a great find.

What tips for changing collars can you share with other dairymen?

CHAPIN: As far as putting collars on the cows, put it on when her head is up and pulling back on the headlock slightly. When she keeps her head up and you put the collar on, you want it snug but not too tight. When the cow puts her head down, the collar will be flat. If her head is down and you put the collar on, it will be too tight when she lifts her head up. Also, if you keep the buckle up, you will have more longevity with the collars.

What advice would you give to others considering making the investment in an activity and rumination monitoring system?

ABEL: If you are unsure about it, I would suggest putting it on your heifers first. If you like the results, put it on the cows.

BURKHOLDER: It’s definitely worth looking into. We spent a couple of years looking into them from a distance. We finally picked one and went with it, and we are happy. I think there are enough positive benefits to make it worthwhile.

CHAPIN: Go see a farm that has an activity monitoring system. Go talk to a producer, look at the collars and ask questions. PD

peggy coffeen
  • Peggy Coffeen

  • Editor
  • Progressive Dairyman
  • Email Peggy Coffeen

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