by Enrico Villamaino

Featuring some major buzzwords in its title, the 2021 World Ag Expo hosted the online workshop titled “Sustainability: Technology in the Dairy.” The webinar was led by Dr. Kyle Thompson, assistant professor of dairy science at California State University-Fresno.

In order to keep up with an ever increasing list of labor- and environmental-based regulations, the dairy industry is constantly engaging in rapid development of and adaptation to newer technologies. According to Thompson, dairies often serve as the laboratories where new farming innovations are tested. “The dairy industry has always been an early adapter of new technologies, dating all the way back to artificial insemination. They were one of the first livestock industries to take that innovation and run with it. The same can be said about automation. Some of the earliest milking systems date back to the late 1800s.” He added that the industry is now due for a new round of technological upgrades.

Thompson focused his presentation on two main categories in which he saw important developments: dairy automation and cattle monitoring systems (CMS).

Thompson broke dairy automation down into three basic areas. “First, there’s milking. And when I talk about milking, we’re talking about robotic milking.” Robotic milking systems, also known as automated milking systems (AMS), are used by milk producers as a way of reducing labor costs. A successful AMS largely takes the human element out of the milking equation. Roughly half the profit experienced from using an AMS system comes directly from labor savings. “The idea with many of these systems is that the cows get to milk themselves,” he said. In addition to increasing milk production by an average of 15%, AMS systems have proven to be beneficial to udder health, as many systems are designed to clean the teats during milking.

“Another area that’s very new, and I’m very excited about it, is feeding automation,” he continued. Like robotic milking, feeding automation can save on labor costs. It can also operate at all hours, increase feeding efficiency and minimize “shrink” (loss in feed), greatly improving a dairy farm’s bottom line. “Finally, and this is tied to that last point, is feed pushing, which is literally a robot that goes around pushing the feed,” he said. Feed pushing allows for constant availability of feed, which stimulates cow traffic and increases dry matter intake. Moreover, with a feed pushing system, low-ranking cows can also access fresh feed, after the high-ranking cows have had their fill. Thompson admitted that these systems require large capital expenditures, but added, “I’ve spoken to more than one dairyman who sees this as a tradeoff. Instead of paying wages they’re making payments on a financed system. And they don’t have to worry about these machines not showing up for work or getting sick or injured.”

Cattle monitoring systems have been around for about 10 years, Thompson said. Today, we have systems featuring collars and ear tags. CMS systems are used to oversee and record a herd’s reproduction, calving and overall health. Newer systems are able to send text updates to a farmer’s smartphone. More detailed reports of both overall herd activity, as well as individualized profiles on each cow, are viewable on connected apps. Deciding which system is best for a dairy can depend upon its location. The ears of a cow are often the coldest part of its body, and consequently, ear tags are less effective than collars at monitoring body temperature in colder regions, especially in winter. Ankle pedometers are more simplistic and are “strictly for activity monitoring.”

The last CMS Thompson described was 3-D imaging systems. “These are becoming very popular, and there’s a lot of up and coming research in this area,” he said. He described how 3-D imaging systems can track body condition scoring, udder health scoring and heat stress. “This tech is even developing the ability to surveil feed intake, which is great,” he added.