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Using data to manage beyond your own cow senses

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 19 July 2017

Good management requires good observational powers. You’ve got to see and hear, and sometimes even feel, taste and smell, to ascertain whether or not things are going as planned. Technology makes it possible to move beyond the limits of your own five senses and incorporate data – collected from cameras, ear and leg tags, and robotic milking equipment – into your management plans.

Don’t think this now-available data – and there is now a massive amount of information that can readily be collected – means less work. It takes a skilled, organized person to manage that data and utilize it to maximize herd and employee productivity and well-being.

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Several speakers at the recent 2017 Operations Managers Conference, presented by Cornell University’s PRO-DAIRY program and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, addressed the topic of collecting and utilizing data to benefit dairy productivity.

Cow data utilization

“The eyes and ears don’t lie to you,” even with all the data, Pete Maslyn of Hemdale Farms said. “Cow sense: It’s still important. The information only tells you there is a problem. It doesn’t tell you what the problem is.”

Hemdale Farms in Seneca Castle, New York, milks 1,100 cows using 19 milking robots and corresponding software. The software also integrates with dairy management software. The dairy uses rumination monitors too. Hemdale Farms collects a lot of data.

The combined data coming from so many sources can show things that aren’t yet observable, so “trust the data,” Maslyn said. “It’s pretty accurate.” As one learns to utilize the system, it becomes easier to target the data needed on a regular basis and to “weed out the extraneous information.”

Herd management

With 120 values per cow per day coming from the robotic milking system, you can “pinpoint problems and hopefully cut them off,” Maslyn said. He looks at the dashboard first thing every morning.

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A challenge is tailoring the data reports to target your own herd priorities. Focusing on the relevant datasets is key. Maslyn suggested selecting four primary goals – and pinpointing and utilizing data most pertinent to those.

“We try to target the cows we’re looking at,” rather than review every cow each day, he explained. By combining rumination monitoring data and the data from the robots, “We can find these cows quicker.”

But, if they wanted or needed to, “A few clicks of the mouse, and you’re really digging into the information,” and detailed information on individual cows, or pen level data, is there.

Employee management

The use of technology on the dairy may mean the need to hire people with new skills. It can also serve as a teaching tool and assists managers with employee management too.

Herdsmen have apps on their phones that provide the data needed to work with the cows each day, helping to save time and labor with fetch cows. Some apps have checklists completed as the worker moves through the pen, keeping managers abreast of progress.

Standard operating procedures are included in the apps, for reference, and so any teaching that needs to be done is consistent and can be implemented on-site.

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With robots, there is “not as rigid a protocol” as is required in a parlor, and “The people have to be able to adjust to that. It takes a little different type of person. You’ve got to have a whole lot more forward-thinking employees,” Maslyn said.

One example is an employee who was previously a night milker that observed and learned how to do the maintenance needed to correct any problems with the robots. He now performs daily reviews of the robot’s incident and failure reports, and daily maintenance on the robots.

Camera data utilization

Tom Wall of Dairy Coach LLC is a proponent of a different type of technology: cameras.

“There are so many jobs at your farm you kind of need to keep an eye on to get that job done,” Wall said. “Our job as managers is to keep everybody focused on the goal. You’re there watching people. That is your job. How can you do that if you really don’t know what’s going on? You can’t do it if you’re not there. But the cameras can be (there).”

Cameras can reveal what is getting done – the good stuff, not only the bad. For those who feel cameras signify a lack of trust in employees, Wall argued the opposite.

“Your really good employees wish you had cameras. Good employees want you to know who they are,” he said.

“We’re trying to build a culture where employees flourish. These are the people you are trying to build your farm around.”

Cameras contribute to a workplace where employees feel valued for a job well done and know their work is being recognized. It is equally important employees know those not meeting performance standards won't be allowed pull the team down.

“This is a tool that helps us teach,” Wall said of camera footage. “Day after day, you’re trying to get results. Habits create results,” and using cameras as a tool to impart good habits in your employees is a best management practice.

Managing with cameras

Wall recommended scheduling a day to review camera footage. It is a management task and should be treated as such. Start by selecting random footage to review for both positive and negative incidents. The night shift, when you aren’t on-site, is a good place to start.

Footage should be used as a teaching tool, not a shaming tool. Some employees may need to be shown what they did wrong, both to alert them to the problem and to let them know you are aware of it and expect it to improve. It also provides documentation of poor performance.

Footage of someone doing things correctly is a good learning tool for the team and shows you know who your good employees are, Wall said.

Camera data collection

Cameras should be durable for the dairy environment. They should have a good storage capacity with a minimum of several hours of footage. The target locations are entrance door, time clock, milk house, parlor, maternity pens, lunch room, fuel pumps and feed alleys.

Proof, which the cameras provide, “changes the dynamic” when managing employee performance, Wall said. “I don’t think there’s anything as good when it comes to employee management as cameras.”

While data can be used to manage the herd, it can also be a tool to manage employees. Either way, someone needs to review the data and put it to positive use. Although the amount of data available can overwhelm, it is a tool that, when properly used, can increase dairy productivity. end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

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