Big Data Meets Cow Comfort

1 year after our farm’s open house, I thought I’d reflect on how things are going. If you know nothing about dairy farming today, here’s a little glimpse into the world as we (and our cows) know it. 

Visitors at an open house this spring at our farm watch the robot milk a cow.

“Even the cows enjoy sleeping in now,” my dad chuckles as he nods towards the herd. All but a few lay comfortably, chewing their cud beneath the warm rays of the sun rising up the east side of the barn. It’s not just an observation though. A quick look at my brother’s apps cell phone shows that robot visits do indeed go down in the wee hours of the morning, but most likely there isn’t much sleeping happening. Cows need only a mere 4 hours of sleep and the rest of the time, they’re “ruminating”, the process through which they digest their food by repeatedly chewing, swallowing and passing it through their four stomachs.

Cow comfort was the main reason my family decided to forego stalls when we built the new barn last year and opted for a composting bedding pack for our 60 milking cows. On a clay base, the initial pack was constructed on a layer of wheat straw, followed by a mix of chopped soybean straw and sawdust. Multiple times daily, for the first two weeks, my dad walked through the barn, turning cow patties and burying them below. Once the pack heated up to 150 degrees, we started cultivating it with our old John Deere 2130 and an S-tine cultivator twice a day. The cultivator aerates the compost down below, which is too hot for any harmful bacteria to survive while also turning the wet manure over, so the top dries out.

Steam from the composting pack fills the barn while it’s being cultivated in the winter.

“A composting pack is not for everyone,” my brother Mike says. “It was a bit of an experiment for a while and takes some management.” The cold, winter weather was particularly challenging because the pack didn’t dry out as well. A dry pack is key because wet bedding leads to higher levels of bacteria which can impact the cows’ udder health and milk quality. After trying different materials, we were able to source old drywall, which absorbed moisture very well and was more affordable than sawdust. The whole thing was cleaned out this spring with most of the material spread on our fields and started over again with the sawdust and drywall mix. The pack is probably the most common question other farmers have when they ask about the new barn because it’s still a relatively new way to house cows in Canada.

For non-farmers though, the Lely robot easily steals the show. Most local visitors grew up on a farm and recall milking cows, so they are amazed when they see this all done without even pressing a button. At a recent open house, the small room which houses the robot was packed all day with visitors watching the laser-guided arm clean and attach the milking cups. Unlike the former milking routine of twice a day, the robot runs 24 hours, breaking every eight hours to wash. Cows come to the robot as they wish, so the average number of milkings per cow has increased to three and more productive cows may visit as much as four or five times in a day. A second robot, named Juno, pushes feed up in the bunk every few hours, making sure the cows constantly have something the eat.

Additionally, the cows get a “candy” at the robot, which entices them to visit. The grain mixture of  crushed corn, soy extrude and protein pellets is rationed depending on the cow’s production. Balancing the total-mixed ration (TMR) cows are fed in the bunk with the robot grain consistently is most important, according to dairy nutritionists who work with robot facilities. We learned first-hand recently the slightest change can throw the whole herd off.

“We tried to blend high-moisture corn into the TMR in place of corn silage, and the cows didn’t want to come to the robot as much because they were getting more grain in the bunk.” Trevor explains. The result was reduced milk production for almost a week until the ration could be adjusted back.

Cows eat at the feed manger. Each cow wears a rumination monitor around her neck – like a “Fit Bit”. 

Luckily, the impact of any change is noticed immediately now, because the robot is constantly collecting data and it’s available real-time at our fingertips. Every cow wears a neckband, which contains not only her unique ID number, but also a “rumination monitor” that tracks how long she chews her cud in a day. When she comes to the robot this is recorded, along with several other data points.

It’s big data meets dairy farming.

The rumination data is combined with the cow’s weight (the robot floor is a scale), her daily production (measured separately for each udder “quarter”), and the relative conductivity of her milk (an indicator of bacteria levels) to assess any potential health concerns before they’re visible to my dad or brothers. If anything appears out of normal, the robot will create an alert. Cows who may be sick and have been treated with antibiotics are marked in the system and their milk automatically diverted away from the rest of the milk to separate buckets.

For my parents, who have been milking cows for over 35 years, the transition was relatively easy. They were ready to slow down, and my brothers were happy to embrace technology and start “farming smarter”. We all wonder how we ever managed in our small, cramped century-old bank barn as long as we did. By far, the best change the new barn has brought about is the time its freed up, not just during the daily chores as originally expected but during the busy harvest time.

“We used to need 13,000 small hay and straw bales. We baled all day, filled the wagons before chores, stopped to milk the cows then back to unloading hay until 11 o’clock.” Says my mom. “We don’t have to stop what we’re doing in the field anymore because the cows aren’t waiting for us and when we’re done at night, we’re done and can relax.”

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