Friday, February 23, 2024

Dairy gone digital: from cow cams to auto calf feeding

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Technology for use on dairy farms has grown increasingly sophisticated.
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Our daily lives have been transformed by technology, including through our smartphones, smart cars and smart homes. The dairy (huamiraka) industry is no exception, with innovative technologies changing the way we milk (miraka) cows and track data. Dr Marcia Endres, a professor at the University of Minnesota, has been monitoring technology in the dairy industry and how it might be influencing sustainability.

“Nearly everyone has a smartphone now but 15 years ago when the first iPhone was released, it was a different story. We can no longer live without gadgets,” Endres said at Alltech’s international conference, ONE, held in Kentucky earlier this year.

“And for the cow, we are able to know what is happening to her now more than ever.”

Endres spoke about the trends and impacts of dairy technology (huamiraka hangarau) and sustainability. She highlighted the value in having proactive information, like rumination data, to flag animals to farmers so they can check them and mitigate any issues that could be brewing.

“Rumination is a good way to know if a cow is feeling good. When rumination changes it might be because an animal is sick, so the farmer now has a helpful tool and they can give her whatever she needs so she doesn’t get severely ill and doesn’t die, which is very important for sustainability,” Endres said.

“A dead cow isn’t very productive.”

She talked of sustainability and its direct relation to economics but she also highlighted how the health of an animal is important for environmental sustainability too, as healthy animals are more efficient. And it also relates to animal welfare (taiora kararehe) and social sustainability.

“We’re seeing more technology beyond wearables on dairy farms now too, such as cameras being installed in barns to monitor cow behaviour, which tells us if she’s resting enough and we know if she’s eating, drinking and so on,” Endres said.

And the same technology can monitor the feed bunk and access to feed, which has a direct relation to feed waste, something Endres stressed as a very important aspect of sustainability. Improving access to feed with automation technology reduces feed waste on farms and improves sustainability. And innovations such as feed pushers are helping improve access to feed in housed systems.

“In one study looking at the connection between feed wastage and productivity on robotic farms there were 11 pounds [4.9kg] of milk difference between farms that had feed pushers and farms that didn’t,” Endres said.

“And on conventional farms, we’re seeing a 2-3 pound [0.9kg] increase just because cows have better access to feed.

“A more productive cow is a more efficient cow, which is important for sustainability.”

Extensive automation options are available for farms now too, with systems like automated total mixed ration feeding also helping reduce feed wastage by efficiently feeding multiple times throughout the day.

And automated milk feeders for calves allow calves to feed in a more natural manner and drink more milk than they would in a traditional twice-a-day system, which improves their health and welfare and allows a more gradual weaning process.

Automation has also reached fans, with smart sensors measuring temperature and humidity. Some are even connected to sensors on the cows so if some show changes in behaviour, indicating heat stress, the fans will turn on.

But she explained that technology is a partnership with humans. The equipment still need maintenance and cows still need managing.

“Automation doesn’t remove labour requirements altogether; it changes the labour,” Endres said.

“Humans still need to pay attention and make sure everything is calibrated and working properly, but labour is one of the biggest challenges of the dairy industry and technology is relieving some of the pressure.

“Because we can monitor our cows better, we can actually get the work done which is important as it’s getting harder to find employees.”

There has been a huge increase in robotic milking across the United States and Endres believes that relates to labour as larger dairies are struggling to find people who want to milk cows, and wages are increasing.

She spoke about the extensive research into robotic milking, both voluntary milking systems where cows go to a box by themselves to be milked as well as completely automated rotary parlours. She highlighted advantages such as a consistent routine, no training requirements and how reliable a robot is because it comes to work every day, which is important for sustainability.

“Automation for various tasks on farms and technologies that can monitor cows and calves are definitely helping our dairies to be even more sustainable and more viable into the future.

“Adoption of technology has grown substantially in the past 10 years. Not all farms will have it but it will continue to grow into the future.”

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