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The data dilemma – now and in the future

Shane St Cyr for Progressive Dairyman Published on 30 September 2016

Most of the producers I work with on a daily basis have dreams and clear goals for the future of their operations. This may include milk production benchmarks, income over feed cost targets, gains in reproduction rates, genetic improvement or bringing a new generation into the dairy.

These dreams are what fuel the day-to-day for many producers. The challenge is: Many producers aren’t as able to measure progress toward these goals or identify where they are today. This is what makes tracking and measuring so important. We can’t get to where we want to go if we don’t know where we are currently.



Today’s dairy producers have an abundance of technology to track more information and analyze it like never before. This makes it easier to craft a plan to achieve a wide range of operational goals.

I’ve worked with many producers who are eager to put technology to work on their operation – only to see them fall victim to two common data dilemmas: fickle data entry and paralysis by analysis. Whether you are under-utilizing or over-analyzing data, both of these situations can lead producers to become disheartened and not achieve the full benefit of insights they set out to gain.

A plan to make data work for you

To help prevent fickle data entry, it’s important to decide ahead of time who will be responsible for managing the data program, just like any other piece of valuable equipment. The quality of the analysis will only be as good as the quality of information that gets entered into the system.

For most herd management software programs, that means a human must manually enter the data.

Ensuring consistent, accurate and timely entry of the information is crucial to success. I encourage the herds I work with to utilize the mobile applications that may accompany their software to do as much data entry cowside as possible.


Only entering breeding information or treatments once or twice a month will make it difficult to spot timely trends that can impact management decisions as well as significantly increase the likelihood of inaccuracies.

Focusing on analyzing actionable information will help prevent paralysis by analysis. There are hundreds of management factors our systems can show us that are simply “neat to know” over which we can have little impact.

To keep from getting overwhelmed by numbers without relevance, focus on analyzing only key reports and metrics that provide actionable data that will help you make decisions to achieve your set goals.

I’ve found it helpful to ask how it can or will be used; if we cannot answer that question, then it may not be something we need to look at, especially if we are just getting started with our data analysis. Two of the most common uses of on-farm data are tracking certain herd metrics to determine where we are and what direction we are going, and second, to generate daily activity reports.

As I said in the beginning, if we know we want to hit 95 pounds of milk and 6 pounds of components, we need to know where we are today; herd metrics help answer that question so we can set a course for achieving that goal. Daily activity reports help ensure we stay on course by giving us an organized outlook of what we need to accomplish each day to help hit certain targets.

Pinpointing the cause of an issue

As we consistently enter quality data, it can be a tremendous tool for solving issues when they arise. One farm I worked with knew they wanted to improve their dead-on-arrival (DOA) rate but weren’t sure what they needed to change. Fortunately, they had good records; after analyzing the data we were able to pinpoint that the majority of DOAs were occurring on Friday and Saturday evenings after 8 p.m.


These shifts had fewer employees, so the calving pen wasn’t getting checked as frequently as the other shifts. After rearranging the schedule to ensure the same coverage as the rest of the week, the DOA rate improved.

Had we not had this data to help uncover the root issue, the producer might have spent significantly more time and resources before finding the solution.

Again, the data is only helpful in problem-solving issues that arise if the information is timely and accurate. Having protocols for how and when data is entered can help ensure everyone on the farm understands the importance of this aspect of your operation.

Preventing problems before they happen

Identifying and solving the root of a problem, like in the example above, is a valuable reason to collect data. For many producers, this is a practice you’ve been employing for some time. But what if technology could alert us to issues before they happen so we can take preventative actions? More and more herds are beginning to take advantage of these types of technologies.

Tracking an array of data from different sources, such as monitoring animal activity, ruminating behavior and milking systems that can help identify early signs of mastitis, are already providing game-changing benefits. Yet this is still a budding opportunity for many operations; the ability to utilize data to set early indicators of trends remains a highly untapped area for most.

Data will only continue to become more significant in the future. As market volatility and increased regulation continue, it becomes increasingly important to optimize margins. Right now, we are reactionary to market prices, but in the future there might be tools that help us understand where markets will be with more accuracy.

It could be extremely powerful to say, “Here’s what we need to do today from a feeding or management standpoint to optimize what the market will be in eight months.”

However, if we are going to achieve that advanced level of management in the future, we must master the technology we have today. Producers caught in either of the data dilemmas mentioned earlier must break out of it.

A good starting point is meeting with your consulting team to define herd goals and outline a plan to collect quality data that you can start to put to work for the benefit of management decisions.

Try to review and analyze herd data on a routine basis. If you don’t feel you have the necessary time or skills, a trusted consultant can often help uncover insights that can be extremely helpful.

Remember, a dairy operation is a synergy of its parts (cows, facilities, feed, etc.); blending the data analysis with the reality is an art form that requires expertise beyond the computer. The right adviser will be able to evaluate the dairy itself, in addition to the data, for a holistic analysis that highlights successes while also identifying opportunities.  end mark

Shane St Cyr is a strategic dairy services technology scout with Cargill. Email Shane St Cyr.