Dairy farmers milk tech to keep herds fat, happy, profitable

When retailing giant Wal-Mart Stores began its push to integrate state-of-the-art radio frequency ID technology into its supply chain four years ago, the world took notice. But one industry might have greeted the announcement with a collective ho-hum. Dairy farms, which began using computerized record management systems in the 1950s, have been using electronic smart tags and sensors to manage dairy herds since the early '80s.

When retailing giant Wal-Mart Stores. began its push to integrate state-of-the-art radio frequency ID technology into its supply chain four years ago, the world took notice. But one industry might have greeted the announcement with a collective ho-hum. Dairy farms, which began using computerized record management systems in the 1950s, have been using electronic smart tags and sensors to manage dairy herds since the early '80s.

Since 1991, the number of dairy farms in the U.S. has dropped by more than half, to 75,140, and the remaining farms are getting bigger. As dairy farms consolidate and expand, they are increasingly relying on a range of IT systems, sensors and wireless technologies to support that growth.

Dairy operations use technology to help improve health, breeding and milk production. The result: milk output per cow has increased by about 15% over that same period, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"As you get bigger, having information at your fingertips is a lot more valuable, says Mary Wilson, president of Thomas Farms of Garland Maine Inc., which manages about 420 dairy cows. And in a capital-intensive business with tight margins, small increases in productivity can make a big difference.

Dairy farm operators now use communications technologies such as wired Ethernet, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and RFID. IP video cameras monitor animals in the barns. Biometric sensors include pedometers that measure each cow's activity level and emerging temperature sensor technologies that detect reproductive heat cycles and early signs of illness. Computerized systems in the barns, in the back office, at feed-mixing stations and in the milking parlors are now integrated and centralized around ISO standard passive RFID tags, each with a unique, USDA approved 15-digit identifier.

"These systems provide a means for ongoing, real-time monitoring of the performance of the business, right down to the individual cows," says Terry Smith, president and CEO of Dairy Strategies LLC, a consultancy based in Bruce, Wis.

Overall, about one in five dairy operations use on-farm computers according to the USDA -- a growth rate of about 14% since 1991 -- and penetration is much higher in large farms, say dairy system vendors.

Cow Tagging

RFID tags were used on about 9% of dairy cows in 2007, according to the USDA, but adoption is increasing rapidly. The reason: At $2 to $3 per tag, RFID systems are just beginning to replace proprietary transponder tags that can cost more than 20 times that. But if the advent of inexpensive, industry standard RFID tags and readers has dramatically cut costs for dairy herd identification systems, it has also upended vendor business models by shaving lucrative hardware margins and opening up the market to new competitors.

Traditionally, tags have been provided by milk machine manufacturers. "They've started selling systems with the $3 [industry standard RFID] tags, but they hate it because profit margins went from 90% to zero," says Steve Eicker, vice president of Valley Agricultural Software (VAS), a maker of dairy management software in Tulare, Calif. "The new tags are a commodity."

Thomas Farms has been using electronic tags to help manage dairy operations since 1987. The dairy first deployed electronic ID tags to identify cows and monitor feed consumption. Today it uses collar-mounted transponders from milk machine manufacturer BouMatic LLC that act as ID tags and pedometers. "We use that [pedometer data] to tell if a cow is in heat or sick. If she's overly active she could be ready to breed," Wilson says.

The milking system identifies the cow, measures milk weight and other data and pushes it into a VAS DairyComp 305 dairy management system in the back office. That system matches up the data with veterinary visits, vaccinations and other information for every animal and issues reports and to-do lists.

Wilson's one complaint is the cost of the tags, which, at $115 per collar, add up quickly in an 400-cow herd. "If you find a cow running around without her collar, you start running around looking for it," she says.

But costs are dropping like cow pies. The USDA is pushing, but has not yet required, standard RFID tags for tracking purposes. BouMatic's proprietary transponder tags, which are read as each cow enters the milking parlor, do not comply with the USDA standards. But both farmers and vendors believe standard tags will eventually be required. So Hanford, Calif.-based John Visser Dairy -- with 16,000 cows in four locations -- was one of the first to transition to a new BouMatic system that uses ISO standard RFID tags. These are sourced from AllFlex USA Inc., a major producer of RFID tags.

"We expanded our herd and didn't want to spend more money for the big transponders and [standard] RFID tags," says Visser Dairy general manager Brian Schaap. AlthoughBouMatic transponders cost $25 each, Schaap is paying just $2.50 per RFID tag, and the USDA-compliant tags are saving thousands of dollars in sensor tag costs.

RFID Roundup

Schaap also uses those same RFID tags outside of the milking parlor, where about half of dairy farm labor costs are incurred. Herdsmen now use Hewlett-Packard iPaq Pocket PC handheld computers and scanning wands with DairyComp to identify animals that need various services.

The three-foot orange wands read the tag on each cow's ear and transmit the ID number to the handheld via Bluetooth wireless technology. As each cow is scanned, the iPaq checks the ID number against a work list. It then sends an audio message to a Bluetooth headset telling the worker what the cow needs, be it a vaccination, a pregnancy check, or other attention.

At the end of the day, workers put the iPaqs into docking stations that upload the data to the dairy management system by way of a USB or Wi-Fi connection. The system improves accuracy and saves labor by allowing one person to perform tasks that previously required two or three, says Schaap.

Bluetooth was the real breakthrough in that system, not the RFID tags, says Eicker. Older systems required workers to bring a laptop into the barn and use a wand connected by a long cable to read the ID tags. "If you've been around cows, the word for that is stupid," he says.

The government's 15-digit ID standard and ISO-compliant RFID tags provided a common identification technology that is lowering costs, he says, but "Bluetooth was the technology that got rid of the wires and broke this open."

Technology also plays a key role in feed management. At Diamond S Ranch in Waterford, Calif., manager Tom Sawyer uses iPaqs and Wi-Fi links to monitor the feed mix provided to about 1,300 cows. "We feed for performance. That's where the money is," Sawyer says.

Cows that are at the peak of their lactation cycle and are producing more milk get more-expensive feed. Others get a less-expensive mix. Each recipe has a combination of four ingredients that are loaded into a mixing wagon. An HP iPaq computer interfaces with a scale in the wagon and displays on an LCD panel which ingredients to add and when to stop. The iPaq is also used for data entry, and all feed purchases are time- and date-stamped as they arrive.

As workers load the wagon, the data is transmitted via Wi-Fi to a server in the office running EZfeed, a feed management system from DHI Computing Service Inc. in Provo, Utah, that integrates with the ranch's dairy management software. Using the tool, Sawyer can precisely allocate rations, and he knows what he has in inventory and how much money is tied up in feed at any given time.

"From the standpoint of watching the bottom line, it is the most valuable program I have," he says. "Income above feed costs is the name of this game," he adds, noting that using a feed management system has resulted in a 10% reduction in feed costs.

Bovine Biometrics

Pedometers have been in use for years, and some farms are experimenting with other biometric sensors as well. "Technology for monitoring heart rate, PH of the stomach, and temperature of the cow on a real-time basis represents some exciting opportunities for earlier detection of problems," says Smith.

TenXsys Inc., which made its name building telemetry devices for the space program, is in the process of launching a temperature sensor called SmartBolus that's designed to sit harmlessly in a cow's first stomach. The battery-powered pill-shaped device, which is 4.3 in. long and has a diameter of 1.3 in., lasts about four years. (It can't be removed; when power runs out, another is introduced.)

It takes temperature readings and uses a transponder to transmit that data 96 times a day to a solar-powered repeater in the corral. The repeater relays the readings to a PC in the office and from there the data is integrated with a DHI dairy management program called DHI-Plus.

BellaHealth Systems in Greeley, Colo., is working on a similar system that uses a passive RFID tag to log the temperature when a cow passes by a reader gate in the pen or milking parlor.

These devices can detect a cow in heat and can help with early detection of pregnancy or illness, particularly after calving, when cows are susceptible to infections that can delay their return to milk production. Scott Cockroft, owner of Cockroft Dairy in Kersey, Colo., and vice president of Bella Health, says early detection can reduce the time it takes to recover from an illness from a week or more to as little as two or three days.

The usefulness of these types of sensors remains unproven, says Jim Reynolds, a clinician at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. Historically, temperature sensors have not worked very well because of animal temperature variations, he says. Cows allow their temperature to rise and fall with environmental conditions, and the temperature in the stomach can quickly change when a cow drinks. The systems need to take such variables into account to avoid false alarms, he says. Nonetheless, he says the technologies have great potential.

Despite the uncertainties, technology is moving ahead in the dairy industry. Sawyer, at Diamond S Ranch, sees adaptation to high tech ways as a maturing process, particularly as dairies get bigger. "All of these things are a natural. To do a top job, you have to rely on technology to assist you and get attention to the cows that need it," he says.

At Fair Oaks Farm in Fair Oaks, Ind., manager Tom Sarosy is already mining operational data in new ways. "I'm constantly looking at it to see if there's a weak spot," he says.

On the other hand, he says, dairy farms could suffer from information overload if the number of IT systems and sensors -- and in the amount of data they produce -- keeps increasing.

Creating lists of cows that might have problems based on biometric readings could become a distraction. The danger, says Sarosy, is that sensors "shift the focus to the technology instead of the cows."

This story, "Dairy farmers milk tech to keep herds fat, happy, profitable" was originally published by Computerworld.

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