October 14, 2016
Imagine a cow wearing five fitbits — two dangling around her neck and three strapped to her ankles. Funny, right?
What about a cow wearing two collars and three leg bands, plus her usual radio-frequency ear tag, plus the cost of software packages required to “milk” the benefits? Not so funny — for the cost, alone.
FITBITS FOR BOVINES? Radio-frequency tags, collars and bracelets hold much promise for dairy herd management, but they still suffer from software cross-compatibility issues. (Photo courtesy of Afimilk)
That’s an extreme example of the wearable dairy technologies available in today’s market. Equipment manufacturers are great at developing new technologies promising to do everything from warning you that Bossie X2341 is ready to calve to catching a spiking milking-quarter somatic cell count or texting you about an impending health issue. But too many of the technologies offered don’t work in synch with data management systems already on the farm.
The farm implement industry has been working together to address software incompatibilities for years. But the dairy industry is behind the curve for competitive reasons.
Dairy data collection is big and still growing, acknowledges Mat Haan, Extension precision dairy specialist for Penn State University. “Ideally, the technologies that monitor underlying biological processes and translate into action are cost-effective and readily available to the producer.” Benefits include early detection, reduced labor, higher feed efficiency, plus improved production and/or milk quality.
By one count, more than 12 companies market cow monitoring systems. Others are marketing labor-saving add-ons for milk cooler controls, gates and more. “But too many are single-measurement devices lacking large-scale field trials,” he cautions. “They may be marketed with much info, but with no clear action plan.”
If you’ve used Fitbit, the same pedometer systems can monitor temperature, cow location, cow position and eating time, notes Haan. Ear tags, collars and ankle bracelets can all give greater insight into cow health and productivity. But issues remain: cost, time to keep the system up to date, learning the technology and incorporating information from those systems into your management.
Not all is as the salesman says
System compatibility and integration remains a concern, he warns. “You can’t have three or four different software-based systems that aren’t matched.” Like farm data systems, compatibility is a huge issue, and it’s not simply solved by a different plug. Plug and play doesn’t always play.
Most companies selling the activity monitoring systems report a one- to two-year system payback. Actual time depends on the existing reproduction program and how well it integrates into the farm’s current management system.
Data from most systems can be accessed from a computer or smartphone. Some use a standalone terminal to view and enter data. Cow-activity data systems often can be integrated with PCDart or other herd management software – but not always. That feature avoids re-entering data.
Other technology issues arise on farms. Can tag readers or antennas read activity tags in all parts of the barn or pastures? Do they require WiFi and internet connections to work?
For more information, email Haan at [email protected].
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