One of the first photos Jeff Bewley shared during his Cornell CALS PRO-DAIRY Technology Tuesdays presentation was a cow with an early version of the IceQube on its ankle. IceQube was a wearable technology that Bewley worked with early in his career.
“It’s interesting because at that point in time you had to connect a serial cable to each of these devices to download the data. You had to work the sand out of the port with a toothpick, and it would take an hour or two to download all of that data onto your laptop or computer,” Bewley said. Bewley is an analytics and innovation scientist for Holstein Association USA.
According to Bewley, there are a number of industry trends illustrating why technology is important to the future of dairy. With shrinking margins there is a need to increase output efficiency while reducing input costs. There are higher demands for quality, food safety and increased documentation requirements on the farm. This includes concerns about animal well-being and documenting wellness. There is a need to make more timely decisions on the farm. And finally, technology can be used to improve environmental stewardship.
“All of these things are setting the stage or demand for increased use of technologies on farms, and we have a road that is paved with technologies. The future is full of technologies providing us with the opportunity to collect rapid and continuous measurements of dozens and dozens of variables on our farms every day,” he said.
Bewley called this current technology boom the “second green revolution.” The first green revolution being the global transformation of agriculture that took place in the post-WWII period from 1950 – 1970 as farmers adopted the technologies of that era – namely chemical fertilizers and hybrid varieties.
Here are some of the technologies that Bewley believes can help farmers meet the demands of dairy farming in 2023 and beyond:
- “When we think about technologies it would be remiss if we didn’t talk about automated milking systems,” Bewley said. This technology has already been around for 30 years, but Bewley believes its refinements are bringing it closer to perfection. He thinks the industry will see movement toward automation on the rotary parlor, which will be a better fit on larger dairies than the “box-based” systems.
“We’ll also see automation occurring in herringbone or parallel parlors. There’s a company out of Israel that’s developing technologies for robotic milking in a parallel parlor,” he said.
- Holstein Association USA, in partnership with Western Kentucky University (WKU), operates the SmartHolstein Lab (smartholstein.com) on the WKU dairy farm. Here, Bewley said, they’ve been experimenting with an automated foot bath delivery system.
“Maybe it’s not that fancy in terms of the data that’s collected, but here we have a system that provides the automation of something that oftentimes doesn’t get done on our dairy farms,” he said. The system counts the number of cows that have passed through the foot bath and exchanges the solution once a specific number of cows have walked through the bath.
- Precision feeding continues to advance. Robotic feed pushers are fairly common, but new robots are able to remix the feed as it is pushed up toward the cows. Automatic TMR mixing and delivery systems are now available.
- Bewley is excited about a novel feed bunk sensor technology. “This technology is basically a sensor that sits along the feed bunk to identify whether or not there are cows in a particular section of the feed bunk to give us the opportunity to only turn the soakers on when there’s a cow in that section,” he said.
According to Bewley, these technologies have been shown to reduce the amount of water used by soakers by 70%.
- Technology isn’t just for monitoring cows; it can also be used for human resource management. Something as simple as a digital time clock can be helpful. Using simple smartphone apps, workers can keep track when and where they work as well as the tasks they’re completing.
Bewley said, “We can then use that information tied into what’s happening on the farm. We know who was milking when, who was feeding when, who was breeding when, so then we can tie in performance to the people and provide feedback.”
- Another HR tool works off of existing security camera footage. One company can take the footage from one milking, for example, and upload it to their servers for processing. The company claims that it can then use its algorithms to spot deviations from what a producer would expect to see in a milking parlor operating at 100% efficiency.
- Another technology provides individual somatic cell counts from the entire herd from just a bulk tank sample, provided that each animal is genomic tested. The individual cell counts are based on the genetic signature of the somatic cells produced by each cow.
“Really to me, it’s a mind-blowing concept to be able to get that level of granularity from a bulk tank sample,” Bewley said.
- Wearable technologies have been around for a while, monitoring behaviors like rumination and walking. Bewley believes the new frontier for wearable technology is to monitor physiology rather than just behavior – for example, an ear tag that can look at interstitial fluid in the ear and measure variables like progesterone, cortisol, non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA) and beta-hydroxybutyric acid (BHA). NEFA and BHA are indicators of metabolic health.
“It really excites me, the idea that we would be moving away from a nonspecific indicator through behavior to a very specific physiological indicator like progesterone,” he said.
- There are now augmented reality (AR) systems for dairy farmers. With a pair of AR goggles, the farmer can now see “in the air” things like cow cards or information about individual cows. Without having to hold a tablet or smartphone, information can be viewed in real time.
- Bewley believes there are many future opportunities coming in machine vision. With this technology, cows are continuously monitored by video, which is uploaded to a computer program. Using artificial intelligence, the computer can “learn” the unique traits of individual cows. With this information, the farmer might get an update if a cow is showing signs of calving or limping, for example.
“I think tomorrow’s technological innovations are beyond what we can imagine, and we should dream big,” Bewley said. “What’s going to happen is other industries are going to introduce new technologies that open new doors. We can’t even imagine what some of these are today because the technology isn’t going to be developed for the dairy industry. It’s going to be developed for the automobile industry or the manufacturing industry, and then somebody’s going to come up with the idea of adopting that idea and bringing it into the dairy industry.”
by Sonja Heyck-Merlin