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Activity monitors for estrus detection: Right for your dairy?

Andy Skidmore Published on 10 October 2012

Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace – and technology in the dairy industry is no exception. Some is considered “disruptive” technology, defined by Clayton Christensen of Harvard University as a process or product that takes root in simple applications at the bottom of the market and then relentlessly moves “up market,” eventually displacing established competitors.

In fact, many business success stories start with a disruptive technology; cell phones are a good example. One example receiving a lot of attention in the dairy industry is an activity monitor for estrus detection. Could it benefit your breeding program?

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Accelerometer technology

Activity monitors come in many different styles, but the technology is similar. They use accelerometer technology to track activity.

The same technology is used in smartphones and iPads to detect what direction to orient the screen display based on how it is held.

This orientation, along with a time stamp, accurately measures the activity of a cow. Each activity-monitoring manufacturer has developed its own equation to present the data in a format that allows the user to make decisions.

These equations are unique to each system based on location of the sensor (ankle or neck collar) and research to correlate sensor data with cow activity.

Technology factors to consider

Deciding whether to use an activity-monitoring system, as well as which type, is an important decision with many factors to consider. The following management considerations, product features and system costs will help you choose a system that best fits your management system:

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1. Management considerations

  • Sensor location and read distance – Parlour vs. pen, real time vs. parlour downloads. These variables will affect battery life of the transponder.

  • Change in management activity – Doing the analysis and reading the reports vs. previous management activity. How and when do you decide which cows to breed?

  • Hourly vs. daily activity reports

  • Adaptability to other applications or sensors, such as parlour or rumination sensors

  • Customization by herd group and classes of animals

  • What percentage of the herd will receive monitors? This generally ranges from 40 to 100 percent. If it is less than 100 percent, then how and when will the monitors be transferred between cows?

2. Product features

  • Data reliability – Tracking data to specific cows, failure read rates, lost tags, etc.

  • System reliability – Battery-backup during power outages, etc.

  • Remote data access by Internet, smartphone, etc.

  • Customer and technical support

  • Ease of use

  • Battery life

3. System costs

  • Initial costs are about $60 to $160 per cow depending on herd size and percentage of cows monitored. Spread across three years, costs average $20 to $53 per cow per year.

Cow factors to consider
In addition to management and product considerations, there are many other factors, such as cow biology and behaviour, that can affect the productivity of an activity-monitoring system. Consider:

  • Thirty percent of cows never show a behavioural change that would indicate an increase in activity associated with estrus.

  • Of the 30 percent, one-third will ovulate but not show estrus and the other two-thirds are anovulatory, which means they do not ovulate.

  • A management system must be implemented to identify and manage these cows.

  • In well-controlled synchronization trials with very good compliance, it has been reported that about 20 percent of cows don’t ovulate at the time of insemination.

  • Some reports indicate that 60 percent of cows in estrus express estrus behaviour between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

  • Be careful when reading results of estrus detection from any technology. Understand what the number represents.

  • Typically in activity-monitoring studies, the number is the percentage of heats detected (of those that were detectable) and does not represent all cows in the herd.

    A heat detection rate of 85 percent in cows eligible to be detected does not equate to 85 percent of all cows.

  • If you factor in the 30 percent of cows in the herd that never show heat, then the herd heat detection rate would actually be 55 percent.

Expected results
The results of using an activity-monitoring system all depend on your starting point or base line. In general, these observations have been seen in herds that have adopted activity monitors for estrus detection:

  • Detected heats increased by several percentage points

  • Decreased timed-A.I. and associated costs

  • Conception rates increased by a few percentage points

  • Pregnancy rates increased by several percentage points

  • Increased percentage of cows confirmed pregnant – Most likely due to more cows seen in heat again and re-bred before pregnancy check

  • Increased percentage of cows pregnant 65 days after the voluntary wait period

Getting dairy cows bred back quickly is a goal of every dairy producer. Is this new technology a “disruptive” technology?

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Would it work well on your operation and, ultimately, benefit your herd’s pregnancy rates and profitability? There are many factors to consider. Consult your animal health or breeding expert to carefully evaluate if this technology is right for you.  PD

Dr. Skidmore is a dairy technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health. He lives in New York and can be contacted at or (716) 474-2715.

Andy Skidmore
  • Andy Skidmore
  • Livestock Tech Service Manager
  • Merck Animal Health

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