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The network-centric farm: AI meets A.I.

Ximena del Campo for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 November 2017

Technology in agriculture is nothing new. The industry has always been innovating, from the development of chemical fertilizers and tractors to the use of animal health tests and vaccines. Digital and technological advancements in the last few years are taking over the industry, making farms more efficient.

Today’s modern dairy farm is equipped with sophisticated data collection technology. It employs both sensors and robotics that automate farm processes. As technology continues to advance, producers can now measure and analyze many activities in near-real time on a daily basis.

The Internet of Things and artificial intelligence

Very broadly, the term “Internet of Things” embodies everything connected to the internet with objects that “talk” to each other. It’s made up of devices with sensors that are connected together and gather information, analyze it and learn a process or provide an action plan. In ag, it’s just a matter of time before all this data will be integrated and fed into computer programs that, through artificial intelligence, will aid farmers in making profitable decisions.

In fact, Victor Cabrera and a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin – Madison are currently working on developing a “virtual dairy farm brain” that, through artificial intelligence, would help farms at the time of making decisions and forecasting. Efficiency and productivity will continue to increase as farms get more connected.

It’s important to note: The United Nations predicts that, by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas, causing a decrease of workforce in rural areas. Smart robots and machine-learning algorithms will help producers make more informed, rapid decisions.

Operations will be done remotely and will be fully automated, and risks will be identified and solved before occurring. Perhaps we are at the beginning of a new revolution.

This inevitable future will be built on the techniques and processes the industry is using today or is in the process of adapting. This includes current reproductive technologies that merit some discussion.

Every producer knows reproduction is a very complex process influenced by the animal’s environment. Assembling a dedicated team of people that work together including nutritionists, veterinarians and semen suppliers is key.

The future of technology in dairy will be built upon these reproductive tools:

1. Artificial insemination (A.I.)

Artificial insemination is an important technology developed in the past that helps producers remain competitive. The advantages of using A.I. are quite numerous and well documented, and range from being able to select sires of superior genetic merit to the ability to mate specific sires to individual cows as well as utilize sex-sorted semen. Not to mention the elimination of the danger of maintaining a bull on the farm.

Reproduction can be improved through traits like Daughter Pregnancy Rate, Heifer Conception Rate and Cow Conception Rate. Studies have shown Daughter Pregnancy Rate will pay off economically, even though the rate of progress is relatively slow due to its lower heritability.

All these traits are part of the Net Merit index and can also be found in other more focused indexes (developed by an A.I. stud) to help producers who would like to specifically target a single management area, such as fertility.

2. Genomics

Genotyping of animals is another technology helping producers establish which animals should stay in the herd, determine candidates for embryo transfer and possible selection of young sires. Higher reliability, shorter generation intervals and higher intensity of genetic selection make it an attractive and popular tool. According to the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB), in 2016, they received nearly half a million genotypes.

On the same note, the CDCB recently released genetic evaluations for gestation length and plans to release in December evaluations on six health traits: hypocalcemia, displaced abomasum, ketosis, mastitis, metritis and retained placenta. Most recently, in August 2016, they added to their list Cow Livability and are further working on a genetic evaluation for feed efficiency.

3. Synchronization, heat detection and activity monitors

Estrus synchronization, presynch and resynch protocols have helped improve artificial insemination submission rates, reduce days open and overall help reproductive performance. A successful program depends on protocol compliance and animals in excellent body condition.

Maintaining a good reproductive performance without synchronization protocols and timed A.I. requires a very effective and strict heat detection program. This can be achieved with the aid of activity monitors that have helped eliminate some of the problems related to visual heat detection, such as shorter periods in which to visually detect estrus behavior, cows not expressing standing estrus or silent ovulations.

Activity tags measure cow movement, and the data is collected and determines if the cow’s activity is increasing or decreasing. Apart from measuring activity, the system also monitors rumen function, cow position, temperature, eating time and even location.

Data can be accessed via a smartphone or computer and is usually displayed in graphs and charts – and in most cases, only basic computer skills are required.

4. Pregnancy-associated glycoprotein and progesterone tests

Early identification of non-pregnant dairy cows after A.I. decreases the interval between A.I. services, increasing service rate, according to a study in 2002.

Utilizing pregnancy-associated glycoprotein tests can help determine pregnancy and play a key role in improving reproduction by rapidly breeding non-pregnant cows. Samples are collected on-farm and sent to a lab. Results are returned to the farm usually between 24 and 72 hours.

Progesterone is required to maintain a cow’s pregnancy and is secreted into the blood and milk. Progesterone tests measure the hormone’s level in milk or blood samples and is another technology that can be implemented in a comprehensive reproductive management program.

To summarize, it is imperative to have an integral management reproduction program in place, and this can only be achieved by assembling the right team of people, working with healthy, comfortable cows and developing standard operating procedures. This translates into managing and being efficient in the insemination-pregnancy-birth cycle of every cow on the farm.

Technology will make this cycle turn faster and more efficiently by using proven sires on genotyped heifers and by using activity monitors or synchronization. Once inseminated, they will check for pregnancy with progesterone or pregnancy-associated glycoprotein tests. (If the animal is not pregnant, then following a protocol to get her back in calf as quickly as possible.)

Finally, once the cycle is complete and a calf is born, it could be genotyped to determine its genetic value and place on the farm. This is, of course, a very broad explanation of the use of these technologies and imagining their efficient use in the future.

Conclusion

Because of the vast amount of information on dairy farms, especially that which relates to genetic progress and breeding efficiency, agricultural companies and universities will continue to research, innovate and utilize big data analytics in conjunction with the Internet of Things to help dairy farmers become more resourceful.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

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