What do you get when you combine excellent dairy genetics, a dedicated dairy management team and an intimate glimpse into cow activity and rumination time?
Betsy Bullard of Brigeen Farms, Inc., in Turner, Maine, says you get, “A pretty amazing way to help manage cows.”
A year ago, Bullard and her family added rumination- and activity-monitoring tags to their herd’s 440 lactating cows in an effort to improve the dairy’s reproductive program.
“Reproduction was a big driver in our decision,” she explained. “If you looked at herd averages for heat detection and pregnancy rates, we were doing well. But there were big swings to achieve those averages. We needed more consistent performance throughout the year.”
While the dairy achieved highly respectable annual pregnancy rates (22%) and heat detection rates (58% to 60%), monthly percentage heat detection rates varied from the mid- 30s to the high 70s, resulting in pregnancy rates that ebbed and flowed accordingly. The fluctuation meant serious swings in replacement heifer numbers, milk production and cash flow.
“The inconsistency made it more difficult to plan, whether it was for labor, housing needs, cow flow or finances,” said Bullard.
Monitoring technology took much of the guesswork out of heat detection, and monthly reproductive performance evened out. Instead of significant drops, heat detection rate is at a steady 64%, and pregnancy rate rose to 24%.
“We’re seeing a high percentage of cows pregnant by 160 to 165 days in milk, and that makes it much easier to plan for the dairy,” Bullard noted. Milk production averaged 96 lbs. of milk per cow on the last test date.
The influx of helpful data wasn’t limited to improving the dairy’s reproduction.
Previously the dairy had a high group, a mature cow group, and a commingled group of two-year-olds and a few mature cows. While not optimal, it was thought that the mixed group functioned pretty well.
“Watching the rumination performance, it was easy to see a big variance in rumination time between the mature cows and the younger cows—sometimes as much as an hour per day,” said Bullard.
As a result, the dairy regrouped cows and enforced a strict policy of no mature cows in the two-year-old group. The two-year-old-cows’ rumination variation immediately decreased and performance perked up. Since the change, the segregated groups breed back sooner and record fewer health incidents than the mixed group of animals.
While extremes of very high or very low rumination values should be investigated, consistent rumination time across the group and herd is what’s important.
Brigeen Farms also stepped up its health programs, leading to enhanced cow performance during the transition period.
“I get an email alert when a prefresh cow is not ruminating like she should for a set period of time,” Bullard explained. “And I noticed that when I got a lot of these alerts, it correlated to more fresh-cow problems.”
Armed with this information, the dairy audited its TMR, discovered a sorting issue, modified the ration and within 48 hours the health alert notifications dropped dramatically. These actions led to a decrease in post-fresh health issues.
The monitoring data also enabled the dairy to assess treatment performance when interventions are necessary. “We can see if we’re on the right track and she’s feeling better, because rumination time will increase,” added Bullard. Conversely, if a cow isn’t responding to treatment as expected, “we can determine more quickly if a cow needs to make a career change.”
“The technology is a great complement to good ‘cow people,’” concluded Bullard. “It’s the first thing I check when I get to the barn in the morning, and it’s the same for our herdsman when he arrives for the second shift. It helps direct people’s energy and helps us better manage our cows on a cow-by-cow and herd-wide basis.”