Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

3 Open Minutes with Ray Nebel

Published on 26 August 2021

Progressive DairyEditor-in-Chief Walt Cooley reached out to activity monitoring industry veteran Ray Nebel with a few questions as he announced his retirement from full-time industry work with Select Sires at the beginning of this year. Nebel discusses where he sees activity monitoring technology going in the future.

Ray NebelRay Nebel
Industry veteran



How has activity monitoring changed over the course of your career in the dairy industry?

NEBEL: The system researched at Beltsville, Maryland, in the mid-1970s was a pedometer that measured walking activity for the detection of estrus. Two major findings hold true today:

1. Each cow must establish a baseline to compare the change in activity that occurs during estrus

2. The threshold of activity to declare a cow in estrus was approximately 3.5 times her normal activity when not in estrus

Today, activity monitoring encompasses rumination and eating for health alerts and feeding times, temperature changes for health monitoring, location monitoring, group alerts for feeding bouts and heat stress, and transition monitoring to proactively monitor postpartum disease and start-up milk yield. Body condition evaluation and augmented reality functions are just now being offered.


The two things that have changed activity monitoring are the use of the internet for storage, computation of proprietary algorithms, and retrieval of data and alerts via a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop – anywhere, anytime. Truthfully, 24-7 monitoring with data and alerts are now available on demand.

What impresses you most about where we are as an industry with activity monitoring?

NEBEL: The ability to customize the data with insights when linked with on-farm management software and various management options that customize the software. Also, the ability to manage remotely using a smartphone app and allow other consultants to view and download the data to assist in reviewing protocols and recommendations. Algorithms that give more accurate alerts for heifers versus lactating cows or grazing systems versus tiestall versus freestall housing have evolved.

What aspects of activity monitoring still need to evolve?

NEBEL: Universal data sharing across systems so producers can link data from milk harvesting software, the monitoring system and on-farm management software to reveal a complete picture. Thus, having one system to receive all desired alerts and insights, eliminating the need to review multiple programs.

What still excites you about what’s possible with activity monitoring?


NEBEL: Systems are continually evolving, and companies need to listen to what economically makes a difference. Systems started with the low-hanging fruit of heat detection. Today, they are developing algorithms for feed efficiency, lameness and culling indexes.

Grade how well most dairies are using the data they are receiving from activity monitoring. In general, where could improvements be made?

NEBEL: Most producers are only scratching the surface with what is available today. Support beyond the sale and installation is still lacking.

In your opinion, has activity monitoring as a category proven itself a reliable technology? If so, when
do you feel that the tipping point was reached?

NEBEL: Labor savings and 24-7 information retrieval with a smartphone were the big tipping points. The information is very accurate, and the technology in most cases is now cloud-based, so reliability is not a question. The percentage of farms that do not have internet access or an on-farm computer are becoming rare.

What points do you use to convince dairy producers to invest in activity monitoring?

  1. Health alerts allow for one- to two-day notice before the cow is clinically obvious

  2. Activity monitoring combines heat intensity and the timing of onset, which provides valuable insights into optimum timing of insemination to increase conception and heat detection rates

  3. Continuous enhancements and research innovations

  4. Low initial investment with subscription plans that offer a monthly, quarterly or yearly data fee

  5. Excellent return on investment (routinely 12 to 24 months): Efficient use of labor, earlier health intervention, reduced pharmaceutical expenses, increased calving and less culling leads to higher milk production

Where would you rank the importance of activity monitoring versus other technologies? (i.e., milk meters or automated milking)


1. Robotic milking – most have an activity monitoring system

2. On-farm software – DairyComp, PC Dart, DHI-Plus, etc., to collect and produce management reports

3. Activity monitoring systems

4. Milk meters

Computer vision companies suggest they are the future of cow monitoring. Has the adoption of activity monitoring peaked and at risk of displacement from disruptive computer vision?

NEBEL: There are more dairies without a monitoring system than with one. This past year, 2020, was the highest year for the installation of new monitoring systems. We have dairies that are now using their third activity system and understand the system they have today may not be the system they have five years from now. They will acknowledge each change has resulted in greater functions and improved management information and performance improvements. end mark

Walt Cooley
  • Walt Cooley

  • Managing Editor
  • Progressive Dairy
  • Email Walt Cooley