Activity Tracking Tools
By Kraig Peel, Ph.D
Technology continues to work its way into all aspects of agriculture. The farming industry has long enjoyed continual advances in land and equipment monitoring to help with management decisions. Animal agriculture has been slower to implement and develop opportunities that will be profitable and beneficial. The dairy industry has been at the forefront in utilizing feeding and management software which has been extremely beneficial for dairymen to have real time data to assist in the management of cows, people, and equipment. There is now technology that is attached to the cow that assists in the daily monitoring of individual cows without human intervention at the pen level.
Activity tracking devices that are attached to collars around the cow’s neck have been developed. The ability to track rumination and activity of each cow has been shown to be beneficial for management. The device on the collar can accurately determine activity which are identified as steps the cows take, time spent standing, time spent laying with head up, and time spent laying with head laying on the ground. The device also measures movement of feed both up and down the esophagus. Rumination time consists of a combination of readings. If the cow is laying, the head must be up and the there must be corresponding data that there has been digesta move both directions through the esophagus. False reading may occur if the throat monitoring device has become relocated to the side of the neck versus the bottom.
Fresh cows during the transition period are often the most troublesome for dairies to manage and are the group which present the most problems. The rumination and activity data has been shown to be beneficial for identifying problem cows before they become critical. There is now the ability to monitor rumination time and then equate that number to intake. A good range for rumination has been shown to be 450-500 minutes per day. That would equate to approximately 7.5 to 8.5 hours of rumination per day. If that number drops significantly, then it is possible that the cow has an issue where she is not eating enough to maintain healthy metabolic function during the transition period. It is common knowledge that if a transition cow does not have adequate intake, she is going to have problems. If we can identify those cows before they have significant issues and implement treatment to get them back on track, we will likely be able to keep them in adequate production. If we are monitoring fresh cows, it is common for intake to drop significantly 24 hours pre freshening and then return to a normal range 48 hours after calving. If a cow has not returned to normal by 48 hours, then the system can flag that cow and management can examine that cow and implement treatment as needed.
If a dairy is utilizing automatic sorting gates leaving the parlor, the system can be set up to remove cows for further inspection. Each manager will have to work with the system to establish thresholds for sorting that minimize false positives while still identifying accurately cows that need intervention. There does not seem to be a significant breed effect between Jersey and Holstein with regard to normal rumination times. Rumination times may be higher in cows that are consuming higher undigestible fiber levels due to increase fermentation activity to reduce particle size and subsequent rumen pass through.
Different approaches to the sorting may be implemented by dairy management. One approach could be to sort off any cows that are below 450 minutes in rumination time for inspection. If after a couple of weeks of monitoring and evaluating those cows, if there are more than desired false positives, then the threshold for sorting could be increased to 475 or another number agreed upon by management. The opposite could also be true. It is possible that using 450 as the sorting number, there are still too many cows being identified in the pen later then the number could be lowered to 425 in order to more accurately identify cows that require intervention.
Another approach to sorting could be to utilize a pen average for rumination time. Then have the system sort cows that deviate a specified amount below the pen average. This approach would also likely require some work to correctly identify the range needed to be the most accurate. The sort will never be perfect but will yield the ability to identify a large number of cows that can be treated earlier than normal.
Activity monitoring is also being utilized to identify animals for breeding. Most operations will also utilize tail paint as a backup or verification. The ability to breed animals from the sorting gate means that they are getting back to the pen sooner and spend less time in lockup for heat check. These animals subsequently eat more and then produce more milk.
The evolution of this technology will continue, and accuracy will improve. These advances will improve cow health which will result in fewer problem cows and higher herd productivity which is always better for the bottom line.