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Dairy technology adoption allows for better collection of data

Sara Kitchen Published on 11 March 2015

calf hutches

Brian Houin of Homestead Dairy LLC in Plymouth, Indiana, attributes the operation’s growth and success to smart planning and detailed data collection. Houin, along with Joel Gawronski, Ryan Rogers and Matt Houin, own and manage a herd of 3,500 milking cows on three locations. Houin shared the details of the farm’s management success at the 2015 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit on Feb. 4 in Lancaster.

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The original dairy began in 1945 with just nine cows in the milking herd. In 1979, Homestead Dairy was formed as a partnership between Floyd and Dan Houin, and the milking herd grew to 110 Holstein cows. The dairy continued to expand through additional dairy farm purchases.

As herd size grew, efficient farm management became increasingly important. Houin explains that data collection and benchmarking is a key aspect of management. Comparing farm data to the industry is a great tool, but in some aspects, it may be too out of reach to be useful.

Because every farm records data differently, Houin says, benchmarking across operations is not always the best comparison. If a farm can benchmark against its own values, measuring progress may be more applicable.

Data collection can be an intimidating task, so selecting what statistics will be most valuable to your herd is important. Choosing to measure and collect data for something in your herd you don’t intend to change or improve is arbitrary. Instead, Houin advises producers to highlight an area of the operation they want to improve and collect data to pinpoint pitfalls and inconsistencies that may be leading to poor performance.

The data collection process may also be a daunting task. Accruing the information, maintaining the records and translating it into a digestible and useful format creates more work. To simplify the process, Homestead Dairy LLC uses a variety of technologies to not only gather information but also prepare it in a readable format for the farm.

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Identification

An effective identification strategy is the first step in the process. Homestead Dairy, LLC uses two forms of identification on each animal. Each calf is tagged with RFID and a visual tag at birth. A spreadsheet for recording calving information keeps employees accountable. Individual weights are recorded at birth, weaning, 4 months old and 6 months old, as well as health information, and are linked to the calf’s identification.

Each calf is genomically tested through the Clarifide program, and the information is used to make many management decisions throughout the farm. The ability to confirm parentage and reduce the incidence of incorrect identification reduces inbreeding on the farm and therefore pushes genetic progress to higher levels of success.

The genomic information also aids in simplifying culling decisions by pinpointing the least profitable and the most profitable animals. The farm culls the bottom 5 to 10 percent. They also use the genomic information to make smart breeding decisions. The top 50 percent of animals are bred to sexed semen, with in vitro fertilization technology being used on the top 2 percent of the herd.

“I always felt our operation was behind in genetics,” Houin says. “We’ve been able to catch up to where I thought we needed to be in just two years. Ninety percent of our heifers are in the 80th percentile [of genetic net merit].”

Herd health monitoring

The farm is currently installing the CowManager herd monitoring system. By measuring activity, eating time, rumination and ear temperature, management can better identify heifers and cows in heat and more efficiently track cow health. Houin explains that he hopes the system will identify sick heifers earlier and lead to more appropriate treatments and faster recovery.

The new system will replace the farm’s current heat detection program, Select Detect. Drawbacks for Houin on that system include the constant need to replace collars and change batteries.

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Record-keeping

Houin says DairyComp 305 was the farm’s first piece of technology and was purchased in the late ’90s. It continues to be a vital element of the farm’s management with its ability to integrate with other data collection technologies and to generate graphs and reports for decision-making.

The farm uses a bluetooth EID wand to read microchip information in cattle tags and send the data to the Pocket CowCard. This technology makes all processes on the farm, including herd checks and health monitoring, much easier, Houin says.

Parlor monitoring

An Afimilk real-time monitor was installed at the main dairy in 2005 and was added to the other two parlors after 2010. The monitor provides crucial data for the milking crew. In addition to recording the amount of production per cow, the system indicates mastitis.

“Our milkers don’t pre-strip cows at the main dairy,” Houin says. “We find mastitis cows through conductivity reports.” The reports increase efficiency in the milking parlor by reducing the time spent forestripping.

The dairies use an MTech teat brush system to replace the stimulation needed for milk letdown.

The managers share the information collected from the monitor and develop graphs for the milking team in order to capitalize on good communication. Having a well-informed team is a great asset on any dairy farm and leads to faster and more appropriate solutions to problems in the parlor.

Houin is currently installing and testing out the company’s AfiLab system, which records individual cows’ fat, protein and lactose levels. He’s looking forward to the system’s ability to detect subclinical ketosis.

“A cow’s milk production may be going up, but there are other things going on,” Houin says. “To be able to find cows and get them treated and recovered, that’s huge.”

Feed management

The operation’s feeding fleet includes three feed trucks and a mixer wagon. The farm uses FeedWatch and ChemWatch software to measure and track dry matter.

“We know when intake is off, our dry matter is out of whack,” he says.

The farm also uses WeighRite to track inventory. The system weighs each load of purchased feed.

“We can track what feed we have on hand and calculate shrink,” Houin says.

A report of his own

In addition to the reports generated by the data collection systems, Houin also creates his own monthly report in Excel that feeds in the highlights from each system and color-codes benchmarks to highlight areas of poor performance.

Analyzing data and making future farm decisions has been a critical responsibility for the owners and managers at Homestead Dairy LLC, but it became a true passion for Houin.

“I’ve had wish lists of new technologies I wanted to implement,” he says. “It took some time to convince the other owners that we needed these items. I had to have the data to back me up.”

Houin acknowledges that sifting through that data takes time, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

He encourages producers to invest in baby steps.

“Start small and start with what’s most important to you,” he says. “What information do you want to know that you don’t already know?”

He also advises producers to wait at least four months to add on something new.

“Don’t add another technology to your herd before you completely understand your current program,” he says.

The use of technologies on the farm beginning at calving and through lactation simplifies the data collection process and improves communication between the owners, management and all employees. Houin’s attention to detail in management leads to decision-making that lowers costs and maximizes production. PD

Sara Kitchen is a freelance writer and a student at Penn State University.

Photos courtesy Brian Houin.

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