Digital Detectives


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More and more dairy producers are employing digital animal monitoring technologies to handle important tasks like estrus detection and identifying early signs of illness. The equipment is steadily increasing in reliability, affordability and accuracy – making it a suitable alternative to more labor-intensive, traditional tasks.

“It’s very much a viable technology that’s growing very rapidly,” notes Stephen LeBlanc, DVM, DVSc, professor and research program director, animal production systems, at the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College. “In many cases, the technology is the same thing that’s in our smart phone that allows it to know how to pivot the screen when tilted. That technology is embedded in a device around the cow’s leg or neck or in an ear tag.”

The technology can measure different cow movements. Some monitors act like a pedometer, measuring a cow’s steps. Other monitors may measure cud chewing as a gauge of rumination. The resulting data is analyzed by proprietary software and returns reports to dairy producers.

Two important areas monitors are tackling include estrus detection and identifying the early signs of illness.

Estrus detection
Monitoring technologies first made headway into estrus detection. It’s a sweet spot combining economic importance with established research into cow behavior.

Successful breeding is the key to milk production, and any delay in conception results in unrealized potential milk production. Having cows calve every 12 to 13 months is the goal for most dairies. However, cows enter behavioral estrus once every three weeks for a period of just 12 to 24 hours, LeBlanc says.

“Traditionally, it’s been up to humans to find cows exhibiting estrus behaviors,” he says. “It’s a huge economical imperative and a biological challenge. Most cows have a very predictable activity. They are restless, walking more. The number of steps increases two- to five-fold.”

Labor is an obvious drawback to individually observing each cow. That’s why dairies commonly use estrus synchronization programs. Accuracy and cost are two main factors in the adoption of monitoring technology, LeBlanc says.

“Monitoring systems will not eliminate the need for synchronization,” he says. “Some work I’ve done shows that roughly 20 percent of cows, for a variety of reasons, may not be detected by the system.”

A system that relies on just monitoring a cow’s activity may not be as accurate for estrus detection, notes Steve Pavelski, a sales manager with SCR Dairy. Pen movements, veterinary visits or other changes may influence the number of steps a cow takes in a given day.

SCR manufactures monitors that also measure rumination in addition to activity. After each cow establishes her baseline period, this helps develop a history of behavior and movement specific to the animal. The results are returned to the producer as an index from one to 100, with 100 being more certain the animal is in estrus.

“The technology has advanced greatly over the last 20 years,” Pavelski says. “We are now using multiple data points to determine if a cow is in heat. Rumination, eating, lying, panting, activity – they are all used to determine if she’s in heat.”

The monitoring tag itself isn’t solely responsible for determining performance of the system, notes Joaquin Azocar, DVM, market solution manager with DeLaval NorthAmerica.

“The mathematical model, algorithms and software capabilities are crucial to achieve high accuracy,” Azocar says. “For example, DeLaval uses two different mathematical models. When they’re combined, they increase the accuracy of the activity system, especially for those cows with irregular activity patterns or changes in their daily routines. Heat detection is important, but knowing the best moment to inseminate the cow is also very important to improve conception rates. The activity alarm should give the farmer a clear indication on when to inseminate.”

Combining information from multiple data points helps improve the system’s accuracy. Cow activity, milk production and animal records are all potential input sources for the software providing recommendations to the producer, he says.
Return on investment
Right now, the cost of monitoring technology is comparable with systematic use of estrus synchronization medications, LeBlanc says.

“If you look at the cost of drugs and the labor to administer them versus the cost of investing in an activity system that maybe needs replaced every five years, it’s extremely competitive,” he notes. “They both perform well and, on average, are equally economically attractive and profitable.”

Most companies report a one- to two-year payback period on the cost of the system. The actual time will depend on the existing reproduction program and how well the dairy is able to integrate the new technology into their management system, LeBlanc advises.

However, the return-on-investment improves if the monitoring system can do more than just estrus detection. Some systems can help alert dairy producers to early signs of illness.

Rumination should follow a predictable pattern, Pavelski notes. For example, producers can expect to see a clear drop in rumination after calving. If a cow doesn’t quickly return to normal rumination, monitoring software can alert the producer of potential illness.

“This enables the producers to identify, watch and do an analysis of that individual animal to determine her unique problem,” Pavelski says. “With rumination information, the SCR system will identify cows earlier than herd persons will. This gives us the opportunity to have better outcomes and can tell us what cows do not warrant treatment.”
Selecting a system
Of the monitoring systems commercially available, LeBlanc recommends producers select a system with a good set of published validation data. This helps ensure the system accurately measures activity.

Pavelski advises producers to ask to speak with other dairy producers who have already implemented the system.

“I always want producers to hear from their peers about how it has changed the way they manage their herds, where opportunities are and how it’s helped produce more milk at a lower cost,” Pavelski notes. “The technology should have a proven track record on the farm and is validated through research.”

The company providing the monitoring system should be able to provide excellent support, Azocar advises.

“It’s important the farmer feels confident and comfortable with his direct supplier,” he says. “Once the system is installed in the farm, he needs someone providing support and advice to get the maximum benefits from it.”

Azocar also recommends producers critically examine the software for ease of use. During a busy day on the farm, quickly getting a report will be an important feature. The expected life cycle of the system is also an important question for potential suppliers.

“Replacing tags, wherever they are mounted on the cow – ear, neck, leg – will always be an issue and a management challenge,” he says. “One of the main challenges that we have seen is keeping information updating correctly in the database when tags are replaced. Most companies are trying to produce tags that last longer, up to 10 years. It’s important for the farmer to know the warranty period from the manufacturer.”

The monitoring system should be able to gather data across a large geographic area. This is an important consideration for larger dairies. It’s also important to consider how the manufacturer integrates the system with other technologies on the farm. For example, milk meters can complement activity. Integrating an automatic sort gate helps optimize time and labor for checking cows after milking. These types of integrations can help improve efficiency on the farm.
Human connection
Implementing a monitoring system does not necessarily reduce the workload of a dairy. Rather, Pavelski suggests it reconfigures the time a producer spends – reducing the time spent identifying sick cattle.

“The dairyman that’s winning the market today has a higher percentage of cows showing up in the parlor without health issues, well fed and reproducing on time,” Pavelski says. “The dairy industry is very competitive. That’s no different than it has always been. Technology is just another tool that provides the dairyman with other data to help them manage business more efficiently.”

There is still room to improve accuracy in monitoring systems, LeBlanc notes. However, there is great potential to expand the technology and integrate it into other parts of the dairy – including milk production, patterns of milk yield and more.

“The industry needs to do the work to figure out which pieces of data, and which combinations of data are going to be the most useful,” he says. “In the end, any data is just really helpful additional bits of information for skilled people. I don’t think we’re going to replace skilled people any time soon. Rather, this helps reduce the number of cows that need to be checked.”

Key questions for monitoring systems:

  • What training or support is provided with the system?
  • How long is the warranty period on the tags or other system components?
  • How large of an area will the tag reader or antenna cover? Will the system be able to
    read the activity tags in all parts of the barn or pastures?
  • Is there another farm in the area using the system that I could visit?
  • What is the payback period for the system?
  • Is the activity system compatible with my current herd management software?
  • Do I need an internet connection for this system to work?
  • How well does the system integrate with the tools I already have on my farm, such as milk meters, automatic sorting and others?