Even Cows are “Texting”

Douglas J. Reinemann is a professor and chair of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at UW–Madison and a milking equipment/energy specialist with UW–Extension. His research focuses on machine milking, energy use and energy production in agricultural systems. He is a member of the sustainability group of the UW–Madison-based Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, where he examines environmental impacts of biofuels production systems. He also leads UW–Madison’s “green cheese” team, which investigates synergies between dairy and biofuels production systems in Wisconsin. Reinemann has directed activities of the UW Milking Research and Instruction Lab since 1990. His extensive work with machine milking includes serving as the U.S. representative and chair of the International Dairy Federation’s working group on machine milking as well as the U.S. representative on machine milking committees with the International Standards Organization. He also has chaired machine milking committees with the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers and the National Mastitis Council.

What kinds of things are cows texting their owners?
This is a development that’s come about through the implementation of robotic milking systems. A robotic milking system has a computer for a brain, and, of course, computers can communicate with us, so dairy farmers have the option of selecting what sorts of information they’d like to get from the dairy herd and how often and when they’d like to get that information.

For example, earlier this year I was at the National Mastitis Council meeting and some dairy farmers there were frequently checking their cell phones to monitor what was going on back home—how’s the robot doing, are the cows showing up to be milked, is the machine working—and even tracking individual cows’ health status and milk production. How’s this cow doing today?

What kind of information is texted to a cell phone?
There are several levels of alert. There are more important things such as, for example, if the machine breaks down and it’s not working—that’s a very high level of alert. And the computer will call you up on your phone and say, “We have a problem with unit No. 2, it doesn’t seem to be operating. Come out and have a look at it or send someone to have a look at it.”

What other kinds of information are dairy farmers collecting from their herds?
With robotic milking in particular, but also in conventional parlors, we can collect the most basic information—milk yield, for example, so that we know how much the cow is giving at each milking. With that information you can determine that if today’s yield is down by a certain percentage, you might want to have a look at that cow. That’s a text message you might receive: “Cow No. 3765, Elsie, is down to half of what we should expect, and you might want to have a look at her today.”

What are some advantages of this kind of technology on the dairy farm?
It falls into the general category of precision agriculture. This kind of information allows a dairy manager to track individual cow information, as opposed to the more general trend in the industry toward group management in the last decade or so. This is a move back toward more individual cow management, which allows the farm to be more efficient.

You mentioned that this is “too much information’ for some farmers. . .
[Laughs] The game changer with robots is that when a robot is milking the cow, there’s not a person standing there. That really created the need for some kind of automated communication system. The robot has to be able to communicate with a human being in the event that something goes wrong. When you install a robot, one of the big questions is, “Who gets the call?”

Some farmers think that this is just fantastic. They say, “I don’t have to worry about the robot, I can just let it run,
and if something goes wrong, it will give me a call and then I’ll go look at it, but otherwise I don’t have to worry about it.”

On the other hand, you have people who hate it because they say, “I’m always on call and I’m always nervous about
getting the call, and it’s driving me crazy!”

So that’s a really interesting dynamic, I think. And it raises all kinds of questions. Do we trust this technology? Do we want the information? We certainly want to know when something’s going wrong—but on the other hand, sometimes we really don’t.

What other information can be collected on a dairy cow?
Right after milk yield, mastitis detection is near the top of the list. Even in conventional parlors we have ways of detecting whether a cow might be developing a mastitis infection. But in a robotic milking system, that detection technology is more sophisticated.

How about feed management, walking activity. . .
There’s a whole variety of sensors that tell us about different aspects of cow activity. The one we’ve been using the longest would be a simple pedometer to tell us how many steps the cow is taking. I recently got a Fitbit myself, so now I’m counting my steps as well.

Activity monitoring is used for a number of things, primarily reproduction—it’s used for heat detection—but it also can be used for lameness detection. And more sophisticated systems can actually locate the cow in the barn, so we know whether the cow is in the feed bunk or whether she’s lying down. That allows us to look at time budgets, the percentage of time spent resting or eating. An even more sophisticated technology detects the rumination activity of a cow. Rumination monitors can be put in the rumen, like a large pill, and they transmit information wirelessly.

How does such up-close information about the rumen help a dairy farmer?
It’s used to manage nutrition. Cows are ruminants, and rumination is what drives milk production, so a decrease in rumination activity is an indication that there is something wrong either with animal health or potentially something wrong with the dairy ration.

What resources are available to help farmers adopt these new technologies?
I actually ran a series of user groups for managers of milking parlors, which we established through UW–Extension agents. We got milking parlor managers together and talked about what technologies they were using and how they were using it. It was a very effective way to break the chicken-or-egg syndrome. You don’t really know what the technology can do for you until you actually start using it. And you don’t even know how to go about using it unless you know what it can do for you. The user groups are farmers saying, “I tried this and it really helped.”

One of the challenges is, salespeople sometimes make big promises about what their technology can do, and it can’t really do it. So people become hesitant. Once you’ve had a few experiences with some technology that promises you the world and then it doesn’t work, it sours you on technology in general. User groups are a way to get feedback from someone who’s tried it and can confirm that it’s helpful in managing dairy operation.

There are also user groups organized by companies that produce a particular technology, including robotic milking. These companies seem to be doing a good job facilitating
user groups.

Look into your crystal ball. Where can this go from here?
The move toward automation in dairy farming has been steadily progressing over the last 100 years. So this progression is really just a continuation of more automation in the dairy industry. What that means for dairy producers is economic efficiency, better animal welfare and better quality of life for the cow and the farmers.

Of Cows and Climate

ON A SUBZERO FEBRUARY day, Mark Powell stops his vehicle on the road a few miles outside Prairie du Sac. He’s been explaining that cows actually enjoy the polar weather—and as if to prove it, a frisky group in the barnyard across the road turns toward us and rushes the fence.

As a USDA soil scientist and CALS professor of soil science, Powell is focused on the ground beneath their hooves. A few years ago he led a survey of manure handling on Wisconsin dairy farms. He and his colleagues knew how much cows left behind—about 17 gallons a day—but had only educated guesses about the ultimate environmental impact of barnyard design. In open yards like this, says Powell, they found that 40 to 60 percent of the manure ends up uncollected. “It just stays there,” he says. In the decade since his survey, the manure challenge has only grown, both in Wisconsin and nationwide. Water quality has been the major concern, but air quality and climate change are gaining.

A few minutes later we turn into the 2,006-acre U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center farm, and the talking points all turn to plumbing. There’s an experimental field fitted to track how well nutrients from manure bond to the soil. Parallel to one barn are nine small yards with different surfaces, each monitored to measure gasses emitted and what washes out with the rainwater.

The manure pit is frozen over, but circumnavigating the complex—shared by CALS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—we arrive at the southern terminus of the barns. Uncharacteristic ventilation ducts adorn the walls and roofline. Inside are four unique stalls that can contain up to four cows each. The manure trough is lined with trays so that each cow’s waste can be set aside for further experiments. When the cows return from the milking parlor, airtight curtains will drop, isolating each chamber.