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Much dairy tech; too little tech synchMuch dairy tech; too little tech synch

Dairy farmers are quickly learning to use new data-gathering tools to manage cows, but they are running into compatibility issues, especially with single-purpose software.

John Vogel

October 14, 2016

3 Min Read

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.

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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].

About the Author(s)

John Vogel

Editor, American Agriculturist

For more than 38 years, John Vogel has been a Farm Progress editor writing for farmers from the Dakota prairies to the Eastern shores. Since 1985, he's been the editor of American Agriculturist – successor of three other Northeast magazines.

Raised on a grain and beef farm, he double-majored in Animal Science and Ag Journalism at Iowa State. His passion for helping farmers and farm management skills led to his family farm's first 209-bushel corn yield average in 1989.

John's personal and professional missions are an integral part of American Agriculturist's mission: To anticipate and explore tomorrow's farming needs and encourage positive change to keep family, profit and pride in farming.

John co-founded Pennsylvania Farm Link, a non-profit dedicated to helping young farmers start farming. It was responsible for creating three innovative state-supported low-interest loan programs and two "Farms for the Future" conferences.

His publications have received countless awards, including the 2000 Folio "Gold Award" for editorial excellence, the 2001 and 2008 National Association of Ag Journalists' Mackiewicz Award, several American Agricultural Editors' "Oscars" plus many ag media awards from the New York State Agricultural Society.

Vogel is a three-time winner of the Northeast Farm Communicators' Farm Communicator of the Year award. He's a National 4-H Foundation Distinguished Alumni and an honorary member of Alpha Zeta, and board member of Christian Farmers Outreach.

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