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What makes a precision dairy technology worth the expense?

Karen Lee Published on 01 January 2014

The precision dairy farming field of technologies is booming with new innovations. With many options to choose from, it can be difficult to know which technologies are useful and how the investment can be justified.

At the Precision Dairy Conference in Rochester, Minnesota, this summer, Dr. Henk Hogeveen, associate professor at Wageningen University and Utrecht University in the Netherlands, defined what makes a precision technology successful to a dairy operation and how its value can be determined.

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He then provided three examples which have succeeded or failed for various reasons.

Precision dairy farming began in the 1970s with individual-cow identification systems, Hogeveen said. At the time, milk production was increasing worldwide and farmers were finding greater efficiencies in managing cows in groups.

That philosophy is beginning to shift based upon current demands of animal welfare, environment, labour, economics and consumer demands.

“We have to reduce the use of scarce resources, so we need to explore the full potential of each individual dairy cow,” Hogeveen said. “In my opinion, we can’t do that in groups.”

To manage cows as individuals means farms can manage by exception. One example is the use of concentrate feeders that customize a cow’s diet based on her production, stage of lactation, etc. “That’s precision dairy farming,” he said.

There are three success factors for the application of precision dairy technologies, Hogeveen explained.

1 System specification
The development of durable hardware that measures one or more parameters is important, but it is only the first step.

The second stage is data interpretation or how it transforms the data into useful information. It must be able to clearly define the animal or farm status that needs to be detected and the gold standard associated with it, he said.

“Is the information useful? Will there be action?” Hogeveen asked.

Third, can the information be integrated with other data sources? While not a necessary step, it would improve the performance and value of the system.

The final step is decision-making. Does it make decisions with or without farmer interference?

To be a successful addition to a farm, it must be clear what the application is doing. At the very least, it should be able to go to stage two and interpret data.

The information provided by the application also needs to be useful to the farmer.

“Alerts without any appropriate management action or standard operating procedures associated with it are not useful at all,” Hogeveen said.

2 Cost efficiency
In adopting precision technology, the benefits should be more than the cost. “That sounds easy, but the costs are clear, and the benefits are often indirect,” he said.

Many of the new developments are designed to improve disease incidences such as mastitis, metabolic disorders or hoof problems.

Therefore, the cost of the disease is the first element in calculating the potential economic value of the system.

Other benefits, including improved production efficiency and reduced labour, should also be weighed against the investment costs of the system.

3 Non-monetary factors
Factors such as risk, the farmer’s goals and preferences, availability of labour or capital also influence a producer’s decision to adopt precision technology.

These factors typically weigh heavier than profit maximization on farms where the family provides a large proportion of the labour, he said.

With an understanding of the elements that make precision technologies successful, Hogeveen looked at three forms of technology in use on farms today: automatic milking, mastitis detection and estrus detection.

Automatic milking
“The economics show automatic milking is not cost-effective,” Hogeveen said. “At best, it is equally so.”

The general trend in studies he cited was that automatic milking has negative effects on the economic performance of the farm when compared with conventional milking.

Yet the introduction of automatic milking went quickly in northwestern Europe with an adoption rate up to 30 percent. Therefore, non-monetary factors are believed to be the cause of the rapid adoption.

In a study of farmers using automatic milking in the Netherlands, Hogeveen learned, “The most important motivations were related to labour, both in terms of efficiency and flexibility. Factors related to improved milk production or udder health were less important.”

Conversely, farmers in the same study that opted for conventional milking systems cited high costs, the dependency on the automatic milking system and the poor growth possibilities as reasons why they decided against it.

In North America, farms that adopt automatic milking systems are working with mostly family labour.

“By implementing an automatic milking system, they are able to increase their farm size without the burden, risks and management difficulties of hiring external labour,” Hogeveen said.

Farms that have experience with hired labour don’t seem to have the need or motivation to implement automatic milking.

Mastitis detection
Developed in the 1980s, sensors for mastitis detection failed to provide useful information. Farmers were already capable of detecting clinical mastitis.

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For subclinical mastitis, farmers could receive that information through somatic cell count measurements.

Since the automatic detection wasn’t associated with a management strategy for subclinical mastitis, the information wasn’t useful.

Without available economic calculations on the use of mastitis detection systems, the value to a farm was unclear.

According to Hogeveen, the adoption of this technology wasn’t successful until it was a necessity for automatic milking systems.

Estrus detection
The value of an estrus detection system can be found in reducing labour and a better estrus detection rate. The second benefit results in a reduction of the average number of open days and a shorter calving interval.

Clear management decisions can be made with the information provided from an estrus detection system, and combined with the cost efficiencies, the adoption rate is fairly high at 15 percent in both North America and the Netherlands.

“Adoption rates are equal between the different dairy systems because there is a clear goal of the system, and there are clear advantages both in terms of reduction of labour as well as in improved herd productivity,” Hogeveen said.

Overall, in order for a precision dairy technology to be beneficial to a dairy, it must address a distinct problem, provide clear information and be associated with a management decision.

Cost efficiency from reduced costs (labour) or increased returns (improved herd productivity) is important but not essential, he said.

Sometimes labour savings is valuable beyond the dollar value, especially on farms with a large proportion of family labour.  PD

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