The use of precision agriculture in the production of crops grabs most of the headlines. But animal agriculture is also starting to make use of precision ag technology in many areas, ranging from heat detection in cows to robotic cow milking.
The afternoon session on Jan. 20 was split into crop and livestock segments, and although those attending the crop segment outnumber the livestock attendees, several new concepts were introduced to the livestock producers.
Identification – Food traceability is becoming a more important issue each year, according to Daniel Buskirk, Extension beef specialist at Michigan State University.
“Three hundred million Americans are addicted to eating, but are disconnected from the people who provide their food,” Buskirk said.
As a way of closing that disconnect, consumers are beginning to demand traceability in their food – being able to go back to the point of origin. This trace back has the ability to improve food safety, food quality and reducing the impacts of recalls, according to Buskirk, who terms the traceability “credence attributes.”
“These are attributes about something that you really can’t see by just looking at them,” he explained. “These steaks here – you can’t really tell by looking at them if that animal was handled in an animal welfare friendly way. If that beef came from a farm that was environmentally doing things right or not, or if that beef was fed a 1000 IUs of vitamin E the last 100 days of its life. You can’t tell those things by looking at the steak, you have to have some information that comes along with that steak to be able to tell that.”
Over the years, Michigan State has developed an individual animal identification program using RFID (radio frequency identification) ear tags that has a 15 digit ID number. Inside the tag is a transponder that contains an antenna and a little chip that contains that animal’s number. Information on that animal is then stored in an electronic data base, under its unique number.
Work now is underway on a method to get this information to follow the product out into the market place. One method showing promise is a two-dimensional bar code, like a QR code that can be read by an app on a smart phone or a tablet and would display all of the data associated with that animal that’s on file.
Since 84 percent of smart phone shoppers use their smart phone to help them shop while in a store, Buskirk expects this form of information will be helpful to the consumers.
Developing a traceability system has value both to consumers and producers, he noted.
“It has value to the consumer who would like to know more about their food,” he said, “but it also has value to the producers because it gives us a way to tell our story. It gives us a way to explain to consumers how the beef, or whatever product, is being produced.”
Reproductive tools – NDSU Extension beef cattle specialist Carl Dahlen listed some technology tools that cattle producers use today in the area of reproduction and getting the cows bred to calve. However, he noted that in a recent national survey, only 35 percent of the beef producers who responded are using some type of reproductive technology.
The survey also indicated that the larger the herd size, the more likely some reproductive technology is being used.
Estrus detection – Results show that 70 percent of cows will come into heat during twilight hours or when it’s dark, making it hard to detect estrus just by visual observation.
Tools that have been developed for heat detection range from various style patches attached to the cow’s tail head that show evidence the cow has been mounted, to an electronic patch that sends out a signal each time the cow is mounted, thus giving the produce the frequency and at what time the cow has been mounted.
Other tools, work much like a pedometer that will indicate increased cow activity, which is another sign of being in estrus.
The task of heat detection can be eliminated by using a program of fixed time insemination. The drawback to this program, according to Dahlen, is the cattle must be run through the chute three times.
“For some that is no challenge, while for others it’s a big job,” he said. “Usually you can see a 50 to 60 percent pregnancy from a single, fixed time insemination.”
Sexed semen is now possible, he noted, and it has about 90 percent accuracy. But it is more expensive and therefore should be used on the most fertile animals in the herd, which are virgin heifers in dairy herds and heifers and females in good condition in beef operations.
About 11 percent of the semen that the process started with ends up in a semen straw, with half male and the other half female. The conception rate using sexed semen is also lower. The average rate with regular semen is around 60 percent, but the rate falls off to 40 percent using sexed semen.
Embryo transfer is taking embryos from a really good cow and putting them in a cow with lesser genetic potential.
Embryo splitting, or totipotent, is the ability of a single cell to divide and produce all of the differentiated cells in an organism.
Robotics – Robotics are starting to make a big impact in the dairy industry, especially in the areas of feeding calves and milking cows, according to Jim Salfer, a regional Extension educator with the University of Minnesota Extension. Although, at last report, only one dairy was using a robotic milking system in North Dakota, around 70 such systems are now in use in Minnesota, according to Salfer.
One of the main reasons for going to a robotic milking system is it affords the dairy farmer a better lifestyle. Robotic milking systems have seen widespread use in Europe for the past 20 years, Salfer noted, so the technology is already in place, but they are just starting to catch on in the U.S. due to the differences in the dairy industry.
“Small farms, milk quotas – so they (the Europeans) really focused on this emerging technology,” he said.
There are two different styles of robotic milking systems, the first developed and most common is the single box system, where a cow goes into a box and is milked by the robot. Recently work has started on rotary robotic milkers.
No matter what style is selected, however, Salfer expects robotic milking to become very popular over the next few years.
“I am convinced in 20 years 90 percent of our cows will be milked by some sort of robotic milker,” he said.
Work is now being done to develop a retro-fit robotic unit that will cost only around $12,000 and will be installed in an existing milking parlor.
Communication between the milking robot and the dairyman will be maintained through a smart phone application. If a unit has difficulty attaching to a cow’s udder, a camera on the robot will provide an image on the smart phone screen and the operator will be able to attach the milking unit to that certain cow by using the touch screen on the smart phone.
Another different concept currently being worked on would require an operator to be present to attach the milker unit, which actually takers only a few seconds, while robots would do all of the other work such as prepping the cow for milking, detaching the units once the milking cycle is finished and then dipping the teats before turning the cow out of the milking area.
Communication between the robotic milker and the cow is constantly occurring during the milking process.
“It takes a lot of different measurements,” he said. “I heard at one time it measures 144 different things from the time the cow walks into the milker until she is done. One of the things it measures is how long it has been since she was last milked, and if it isn’t long enough, the gate will open and chase her back out.
“They come in because of the feed offered, not because they like to be milked, and on this one farm they had one cow go through 144 times in one day.”
To make robotic milking work, according to Salfer, a dairy operator will need to have both an interest in technology and cows.
“Some of the dairy operators thought the use of robotic milkers would solve all of their management problems,” he said. “But, if you are a poor manager, it only causes you more problems, while the good managed farms can really make good use of it.”
Robotic milking machines have been in use in Europe for some time, but are just catching on in the U.S. within the last decade.