Friday, 15 December 2017 12:55

Cow collars cut farmer stress

Written by  Nigel Malthus
Battery-powered cow collars monitor each animal. Battery-powered cow collars monitor each animal.

Fitting out an entire dairy herd with wireless digital activity monitors is so effective a management tool that it even reduces human stress.

So says farm consultant Meg Simpson, of the Centre for Dairy Excellence, Geraldine.

The centre markets SCR monitoring collars, working with SCR’s parent company Allflex.

Simpson outlined the benefits of the system at the recent Dairy Barns Conference in Timaru.

Under the banner ‘Make Every Cow Count’, they relaunched the product with a new holistic approach to whole farm management, she said.

About 20 herds use the system in New Zealand -- 14,000 to 15,000 collars including about 100 cows being assessed at the Lincoln University Dairy Farm.

Each cow wears a collar-mounted battery-powered device with a variety of sensors that can monitor and record her activity, the data being collected by one or more wireless base stations around the farm.

Simpson likened it to the game-playing Wii console on which people play games like virtual tennis.

“It detects those motions and the force of those motions. It knows when a cow’s eating, when she’s ruminating, when she’s jumping and when she’s lying down.”

With 12 years of data behind it, Simpson said it is now an established technology.

She presented several graphs to the conference, made up of data gathered in actual herds. One showed clear spikes in activity and corresponding drops in rumination as a single cow went through its heat cycle. The system would identify cows for mating and give early indications of abnormal heats.

Being able to rely on technology to detect heats reduces stress on the farmer, she said. It reduces the need for the decision maker to be “tied to the dairy shed” and frees time to manage the farm better.

“One [client farmer] told me he had breakfast with his family every day through mating, and he’s never done that before. Another said the weeds on his farm never looked better. It might seem a minor thing, but for them it was their perception -- how their farm looked and how they felt about it.”

Monitoring rumination habits is also key to managing health issues, Simpson said. She presented graphs showing clear changes in rumination time as cows suffered illnesses and responded – or did not respond – to treatment.

Graphing whole herd data can help manage events such as changes of feed.

Simpson said an exciting opportunity lies in post-calving cow management: it can show when a cow is ready to join the main herd, rather than applying a blanket rule of keeping her among the colostrum cows for four days.

She said rumination will drop to about half normal on the day of calving, then should increase by about 50 minutes a day as the cow returns to normal. Slow recovery of rumination can indicate problems such as ketosis, metritis or displaced abomasum.

“If we can catch that early we can intervene and set that cow up for the whole season.”

She said there is a huge opportunity to ask whether a four-day colostrum period is a good rule.

“Do we want that cow to be able to go out into the herd and compete and be healthy -- not be coming back sick two weeks later? Or being identified 10 days later when she’s lost half her condition score?”

Simpson said the cost of a system is determined farm by farm; but a basic setup for a 500-cow herd can be $100,000 -- $120,000.

Overseas systems commonly use central data readers that update only when the cows return to the shed, but SCR recommends NZ farmers install readers across the farm for blanket coverage and more immediate response.


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