Activity and rumination monitors are usually marketed as tools to improve pregnancy rates and finding sick cows.
But they’re more than that. The systems double as virtual skilled labor which pinpoints the time to breed cows and find cows that are sick even before anyone, even a highly skilled herdsman, knows they are sick. That’s critical for small and mid-sized herds when margins are razor thin.
And because these systems have phone apps, the information they generate is always with you. Think of it as a herdsman on your hip, say farmer users.
Michael Johnson, who farms with his wife, Margaret, and his father, Jon, near Fountain, Minn., have been using activity, rumination and temperature sensing ear tags from CowManager for the past four years. The Johnsons milk about 600 Holsteins with a rolling herd average of more than 32,000 lb/cow.
“We’re large enough to have a herdsman,” says Michael. “But the ear tags still allow us to do everything ourselves. The system is like a 24/7 unbiased employee who doesn’t have a sick day.”
A case in point is the Johnson’s post-fresh pen, where cows are housed for two weeks after calving. “We don’t really look at the post-fresh cows at all unless they come up on the health list,” he says. “I like the idea of not having to lock up fresh cows to check and temp them.”
Temperature sensors in the ear tags are not recording internal body temps but air temps on the ear. The system will add a temperature alert icon only when a cow’s ear temperature deviates from her herd mates within her assigned group. And the rumination monitor can detect when a fresh cow’s feed intake decreases.
“The system will almost always pick up subclinical mastitis (through a drop in rumination) a day or two before we would pick it up in the parlor. We don’t normally have a lot of pneumonia, but it will pick up pneumonia when it does occur,” he says.
The Johnson still do routine vet checks. But the vets are also starting to use data generated by the system. If the vet notices an anomaly, he’ll ask Michael how the cow is doing on rumination and activity. With all the information available on the phone app, Michael can call up the cow’s record immediately and describe what she has been doing the past few days.
The Johnsons used to pay an A.I. company to chalk and walk pens to check for heat. Plus, they were on a full pre-synch/Ovsynch program. Now, they are no longer chalking cows and have cut their synchronization program back considerably.
They have a voluntary waiting period of 70 days, and start cows on an Ovsynch program at 88 days if cows show no estrus activity by then. “We try to breed as many as we can off the ear tag activity. If they don’t show heat, we will synchronize them and then breed on timed A.I.,” Michael says.
He estimates about 75% of the herd is being bred based on activity monitoring. The Johnson’s conception rate is above 50% and the preg rate is hovering at 31%. “The system has worked well, and has reduced our labor and hormone use,” he says.
Calculating an exact return on investment is difficult. When the Johnson’s first purchased their system in 2014, milk prices were much better. Back then, he figured a payback in 11 or 12 months. “With low milk and cull prices, it’s a little longer—but still probably less than a year and a half. It’s definitely worked well for us, but it still takes management,” he says.
The advantage—and disadvantage—of electronic monitoring is the amount of information it provides. “These systems just give you lots of information. It’s up to each farm to decide how they’re going to use it,” says Michael. “It’s a great tool, but it also can be data overload. It took me three or four months to figure out how to use the data and make it work best for our farm.”
Peace of mind is another advantage. With a young family and three kids under the age of six, the phone app does allow him to spend time with his family and occasionally get away from the farm. But he still has all the information on his hip in his phone. If a cow does come up on a health alert or needs to be bred, he simply calls whoever is covering for him at the farm that day and tells him which cow to check. “For the mid-sized and smaller herds, that’s a big benefit,” Michael says.
To learn more about activity monitoring systems, watch this video.
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