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Fourth-generation Texas dairyman invests in technology to decrease labor needs

Ashley Abbott for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2019
Will Collier

The old adage, “Good help is hard to find” is more true than ever these days, particularly in the field of agriculture. Luckily, many dairies are finding ways to overcome this obstacle with the utilization of technology.

One of these dairies is T & K Dairy located in Snyder, Texas, owned by Will Collier and his wife, Lauren. Will is the fourth-generation farmer in his family and hopes his three children will someday be the fifth. The family farm was started at the current location back in 1982, with Will and Lauren buying the farm from Will’s parents in 2008.

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The Colliers milk 2,400 cows on the dairy, with about 50 percent of the herd being crossbred and the other half being Holsteins. Cows are milked 2X, and fresh cows are milked 3X.

A few years ago, frustrated by ongoing labor issues, the Colliers made the decision to invest in an SCR collar system for the herd, along with the addition of a sort gate, palpation rail and treatment area. Will’s idea behind investing in the system was to better utilize the high-quality labor he had available and have less dependence on unskilled laborers. He says he has been very happy with the system and considers it a success.

Will says he doesn’t have fewer workers than before but rather “labor just doesn’t do what they used to do.” The new system allows the herd manager to more easily monitor the herd without having to be out in the barns all the time. Having the sort gates and treatment area helps workers get most of the cowside work done quickly and efficiently, reducing the need to find cows, lock up groups and waste valuable time.

Overall, the setup has improved the way labor is utilized on a daily basis, allowing them to get the work done with fewer high-skilled laborers. Collier likes the system because “nothing slips through the cracks.”

“Implementing the use of the SCR collars is probably the best decision we have made in recent years,” Collier says.

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The SCR collars monitor both activity and rumination, which Collier finds helpful in identifying problems early. “The collars haven’t necessarily decreased our cull rate, but it helps us find and ship problem cows sooner rather than having death loss,” he says.

Collier has also found great success with the use of the activity monitoring function of the SCR collars for heat detection. Prior to using the SCR collars, the farm relied on tail chalking for heat detection. The system was fairly effective but was very labor-intensive, and they found they were often breeding cows not in heat. Due to this fact, they were beginning to breed cows as early as 52 days, just trying to get semen in cows. The activity collars have completely changed this philosophy.

“We have been through three different breeders in the last year and, despite that, our pregnancy rate still continues to climb,” he says. The pregnancy rate has increased by 3 percent in the last year to an annualized average of 29 percent. However, more recently, there have been several cycles where pregnancy rate has been above 40 percent. Collier says heat detection rate has remained fairly constant, but “conception rate has improved because we are breeding cows that are for sure in heat.”

The dairy has been able to decrease their use of hormones as well, to the point where they currently Presynch cows with two prostaglandin shots and then simply monitor activity and breed off of natural heats. This action has allowed them to shift their voluntary waiting period from 52 days to 60 days. Collier also noticed semen usage has decreased dramatically due to the increased conception rate and heat detection accuracy provided by the activity monitoring collars.

The Colliers have benefited from their implementation of technology, and they plan to keep on the same trend by adding a new facility this year where they will milk cows with 18 robots. The new facility should be in operation by July, and Collier is looking forward to the opportunity to improve their performance even more.

“We plan to send the Holsteins to the robots, and keep the crossbreds at the old farm, and go back to three-times-a-day milking,” Collier says. He says he feels the crossbred cows are better able to handle the heat stress and weather changes than the Holsteins, which will make them a better-suited group to stay at the older facility.

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Collier says he hopes his decisions to invest in technology will help the next generation want to come back to the family farm.

“Labor is just really hard to find, and milking cows isn’t as appealing as it used to be,” Collier says of his decision to build a robot facility. He says he is confident the future of his family farm will be brighter due to these technological investments.  end mark

PHOTO: Collier noticed his semen usage decreased dramatically due to the increased conception rate and heat detection accuracy provided by the activity monitoring collars he invested in for his farm. Photo courtesy of Dairy MAX. 

Ashley Abbott is a freelance writer as well as an ag teacher and FFA adviser in Weyers Cave, Virginia.

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