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Cow activity monitors help dairy producers boost profitability

Dan Truttman and dog Ally
INSIDE INFORMATION: Dan Truttmann, with his dog, Ally, gets updated reports on his computer from his SCR system identifying which cows have rumination issues and which cows are in heat.
The Truttmanns and Hinchleys save money on inputs and have healthier cows with the SCR system.

Dan Truttmann and his family milk 400 cows in a swing-16 milking parlor near Blanchardville. They farm 400 owned and 400 rented acres. Truttmann is the fifth generation to operate the farm, which has been in his family since 1899.

After graduating from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in dairy science, Truttmann went home to farm.

"We were milking 60 cows," he says. "That's when we starting getting bigger and transitioned to where we are now. We grazed our cows for 20 years. It was our means for growing the herd without adding facilities. As cow numbers grew and cash flow improved, we added the parlor in 1995 and built the first freestall barn in 1998."

The Truttmanns built their second freestall barn in 2012 and expanded to 400 cows. Their herd is 60% Jerseys and 40% Jersey-Holstein crossbreds.

"Since we expanded in 2012, we have been breeding everything Jersey," Truttmann explains.

Their cows average 75 pounds of milk with 4.9% butterfat and 3.5% protein.

Keeping track
In August 2015, Truttmann was looking for a better way to detect when his cows were in heat. He also wanted to determine when a cow was sick with mastitis, ketosis, a displaced abomasum or other ailment, and whether cows were eating or not.

"I wanted to be able to monitor cow health better without adding more employees," he explains. "I didn't have enough time to spend in the fresh pen. Oftentimes I wasn't catching the problem until a day or two after I should have caught it, which was causing me anxiety."

Now, each of his cows wears an SCR collar to keep track of her rumination and physical activity. First thing in the morning, Truttmann is able to use his cellphone and the SCR Healthy Cows 24 app to check on his cows' health before he ever leaves the house.

"I check to see what rumination was in the past 24 hours," he says. "Then I check the health report to see if any cows had a drop in rumination. There is also a stress alert that tells you if a cow hasn't ruminated in 10 minutes in a two-hour block of time. That usually means she is in hard labor or has a serious metabolic issue."

Truttmann credits his SCR cow monitor system with helping him keep track of his cows individually.

"The SCR monitors allow me to do a better job and do it more efficiently," he says. He is able to go through the list of cows to check if their rumination is improving.

"This allows me to catch ketosis issues early enough that I can give them propylene glycol instead of having to give them IV dextrose or have the vet do a DA surgery," Truttmann says.

"When we got bigger, it was harder to find the time to catch everything," he says. "This system allows me to do that. This system is like having a camera on the cows all of the time."

Truttmann says he also likes that his AI technician gets an email every morning, sent from the SCR system, telling her which cows to breed that day.

"Some days she stops early, breeds a cow or two, and then comes back in the afternoon to breed another cow or two," he explains. "Some days she doesn't have to stop at all."

Sexed semen
Another reason Truttmann says he went with the SCR system is because he wanted to get more cows pregnant using sexed semen.

"We wanted to use sexed semen because of the low value of Jersey bull calves. Before we put in the SCR system, we were having spotty success with sexed semen, at best. With the monitors, we can more accurately time the breeding. The system helps us wait to breed a cow and not breed too early," he says. "About 25% of our cows and between 60% and 70% of our heifers are pregnant to sexed semen."

Truttmann says since using the SCR system, hormone use has dropped significantly.

"We were breeding a third of our herd on ovsynch," he says. "Now we only ovsynch between 5% and 8% of our herd."

Truttmann believes the SCR system has already paid for itself.

"My anxiety level has dropped significantly," he notes. "The payback is pretty rapid with buying less hormones, being able to use sexed semen, using less semen and having lower vet bills."

Truttmann says he also uses the SCR system to decide if a cow should be treated or culled.

"This system helps me decide if a cow has an acute or chronic health problem. Before we put an antibiotic in a cow, I have a better sense of if this problem is worth treating."

Improved conception rate
Three years ago, Duane and Tina Hinchley of Cambridge wanted to do a better job of getting their cows bred. The Hinchleys grow 2,500 acres of crops and milk 135 registered Holstein cows near Cambridge. They also have 150 heifers, raise sheep and chickens, and give lots of tours of their farm.

"We milk our cows in a barn with 73 tiestalls," Duane explains. "We switch in 40 cows that are housed in a freestall barn that holds a total of 155 head."

Duane and Tina have a grown son who lives in Washington state and twin 19-year-old daughters who are students in Madison.

"With our twins in school, we don't have their help at this time. We are our labor force. To be efficient, we installed the SCR system," Duane says. "We do have a few part-time employees, but don't have any full-time ones."

MONITORING SUCCESS: Duane and Tina Hinchley are having tremendous success getting cows bred thanks to their SCR activity and rumination collars like the one on the cow in the foreground. Their registered Holsteins have a 24,320 rolling herd average.

 Before they purchased the SCR cow activity monitors, Duane and Tina were using hormone protocols and chalking tails every day.

"One of us would watch cows for activity. If a cow wasn't noticed, then you would see her bleed off two days later," Tina says. "It was very frustrating."

Today, 85% of their cows are pregnant on 125 days in milk with 2.6 AI services or less. The Hinchleys use sexed semen on first-service heifers and their elite cows.

"About 50% of our cows are bred with sexed semen," Duane says. "We're picking the best and keeping what we want. We ovsynch cows that are not pregnant on first service, and the SCR system will catch many of the repeats."

The Hinchleys have 70 rumination and activity collars for their cows, and 20 for their heifers.

"We would love to have a collar for each cow," Tina explains. "When they calve, they get a collar to watch rumination and health. At 50 days pregnant, the collars are taken off and put on other fresh cows. Dry cows are not wearing them. Ideally, we would love to have a collar on every animal. Ninety-seven percent of our heifers are noticed in heat with the SCR system, and we average 1.5 services per conception, incorporating sexed semen."

Since buying the SCR system, the Hinchleys are spending 40% less on semen and hormones — and experiencing 100% less stress.

"We really love this system," Duane says. "It has really helped our confidence level on the farm, because we know we are getting our cows bred, and the cows are healthier. A bred cow is a healthy cow."



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