Information to help us manage cows better

Technology has enabled us to monitor cows and heifers and use that information to better mange them. But the human eye of the manager is still the greatest tool.

At World Dairy Expo and on a farm visit associated with that trip, I learned about the tremendous wealth of information available to dairy producers through technology. Not only can herd managers check activity levels of heifers and cows and determine when it is likely they are in heat, but even the quality of that movement can be determined. In addition, rumination monitors can record how much time cows spend ruminating. Parlor monitors can show the consistency of time until attachment of the unit no matter where cows stand in the parlor and milk flow rates can be determined by time segments while the units are attached.

Having access to this kind of information enables herd managers and owners to breed animals in heat, detect cow problems such as ketosis before any other signs show, detect group responses to new feed, detect problems in parlor labor and much more. In short, they help producers manage cows better.

As we understand cows better and the impact of our actions on them, we are then able to manage them for better health, comfort, reproduction and production. And in this case, we understand them better by the technology that records what they are doing.

Of course, technology doesn’t breed cows or change feeds. It doesn’t move cows or do abomasum surgeries. Technology is a tool that alerts managers to changes in the cow, changes in the parlor or changes in the pen. It is information that needs to be acted upon by the manager. It is information that needs to be confirmed and checked by the manager. It is no silver bullet.

As farms grow and employees take over a higher percentage of cow contact and actions, then being able to monitor the herd through technology becomes even more important for the manager who is managing people who manage cows. The information is a tool that farms have to put to use, and the better job they do of that, the better performance they will have.

But that technology comes with a price. And for many producers, they may not see a way for them to currently cash flow that price. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t manage cows or manage parlor activity.

The history of dairy farming is the history of men and women observing cows, watching for changes, looking for heats, checking for rumination, keeping records of what works and what doesn’t. Successful dairying has always been about learning more about the amazing cows that produce milk for us and working with them to produce more of it. It is the eye of the manager that is the most valuable tool.

That eye is still incredibly important. We may learn from a rumination monitor that a cow is not ruminating as much, but why is that? She needs to be examined, and checked, she needs to be watched.

As herds grow larger, our ability to watch each cow becomes time limited, so the technology of monitoring cows are great tools, tools that I would encourage all farmers to aspire to have and use.

But mostly I would encourage producers and employees to continue to develop their eye for cows, their husbandry skills and get to know their cows better. Technology shouldn’t replace cattle observation; it should fine-tune our skills. That truly is a win-win scenario.

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