When your cows are in the freestall barn, they’re doing a lot more than resting and waiting for the next round of feed to be delivered. Penn State engineer John Tyson says a herd manager can learn a lot about what’s happening in a herd, including health, by watching cow behavior over a period of time. Although dairy managers and their employees observe cows throughout the day, uninterrupted observation through time-lapse photography can reveal less obvious but important issues.
“You can view a day in the life of a cow in several minutes,” said Tyson. “You can condense one day into four or five minutes, or one week into 20 minutes or a half hour. This allows you to notice trends and problems, and possibly come up with some solutions to those animal behaviors. It also removes the influence of the observer — if we’re going to spend time observing animals, there’s always the question of how much we as an observer influence the animals’ behavior. There’s something new, something unique in their environment, so how much are they reacting to the observer versus going about their daily routine?” Cameras also make it easy to watch and compare cow behavior at certain times of the day and determine whether techniques and handling vary from day to day.
Todd Franz, regional sales manager for Diamond V (animal nutrition), says he started using time-lapse cameras in dairy barns when TMR audits revealed issues with cows running out of feed. Having cameras on the job meant that no one had to personally observe cattle over long periods of time.
Franz says one of the main problems he saw on farms is that cows’ feed intake was unintentionally restricted. Smaller farms don’t have round-the-clock labor, which results in push-up problems. Franz spent a lot of time fixing nighttime push-up issues and created push-up schedules. “The other problem we still encounter is redistribution,” he said. “We need to be sure that when we push up feed, there’s feed all the way along the bunk and we don’t have one end or part of the bunk out of feed.” Franz added that cows are highly territorial, and if they run out of feed on one end of the bunk, they aren’t likely to move to the other end to eat.
The result of uneven feeding — and eating — is the potential for more digestive issues and DAs at one end of the barn. “If we have digestive upsets in a barn, we want to know where that cow lives,” said Franz. “That gives us an indication of where we might have a problem in that barn.”
Franz says bunk call misses result in cows being out of feed for long periods of time. “Our record on camera is cows being out of feed for 13 hours,” he said. “When we miss, we miss pretty big. The larger the dairy, the more they can be out without anyone seeing it, reacting and adjusting.” Franz added that it was common a few years ago to see cows out of feed for 4 to 8 hours at night. “Fresh pens and pens where cows are moved more have even bigger issues. Ideally, after delivery, we prefer to see at cow eat for 45 minutes maximum; that she take smaller, less aggressive meals.”
Handling of refusals can be assessed more accurately with time-lapse cameras. “When we push refusals down to the end of the barn before feeding, those refusal amounts have no indication of what’s really going on,” said Franz. “That’s where the cameras do a really good job of showing producers that refusals might be right on target, but you may not be redistributing or pushing up when pushes are needed, and you still may have cows out of feed for a long period of time. Refusals are a poor indicator of cow behavior and accessibility to feed.”
Franz promotes the use of push-up charts that coordinate the feed pusher with the feeder so they can have a plan and cows aren’t out of feed, especially for more than one day. With a plan in place, the pusher and the feeder can adjust and hit their target. The chart should be set up so that the night pusher indicates the time of night a bunk gets low so it gives the morning feeder a better indicator of what’s going on and get ahead of the situation so there isn’t a two or three day lag on a group of cows. “We may just have a one-night lag,” said Franz. “It lessens the damage we’re doing by running the cows short of feed.”
Franz also encourages the feeding of refusals. He recalls that about 10 years ago, when feed costs were high, he was in favor of allowing the bunks to get slick. Some producers spent a lot of man hours working on it and made it work. “But when we missed, we missed big and hurt a lot of cows,” he said. “Now we’ve transitioned most dairies to feeding more refusal, and recycling refusal. If we have higher refusal rates, we can make a lot of good things happen and still use all of our feed.”
When Franz places cameras at a dairy, he leaves them for at least three days, preferably for a full week, to get an accurate picture of what’s going on. “If I set the camera at 10-second intervals, it takes a picture every 10 seconds,” he said. “A 32-gigabyte card can handle about a weeks worth of pictures. The batteries last longer than that unless it’s really cold out.”
At first, Franz was watching camera footage for ‘out of feed’ events, how feed is pushed, how long it takes in the parlor and cow behavior. As feeding improved, he spent more time observing cow behavior. He also spends a lot of time trying to figure out if cows are being fed at the right time of day and how those times coincide with milking times. Franz noted that for dairies with a high stocking rate, it’s important to try to get cows to rotate because they value their stalls more than they value the opportunity to eat.
Franz says most new dairy barns in the upper Midwest are having cameras installed as part of new construction. “The systems are pretty inexpensive, but the problem is that it’s difficult to play back the video, so the managers are not as likely to view the videos of the bunks,” he said. “If you’re thinking about putting cameras over the bunks, make sure it’s a program you can watch easily and quickly.” He added that some dairies are now making all bunk calls from the office based on camera footage.