SPRING VALLEY, Wis. – Mark Mitchell juggles a lot of tasks as herdsman for Trim-Bel Valley Dairy. Important among those jobs are monitoring the health and reproduction of the Spring Valley farm’s 530 milking cows -- 600 including dry cows.

“I do a lot of things alone and needed an assistant,” he said.

His new assistant – Ida – arrived just a few months ago and might be what one could call a lifelong learner. Ida is just built that way.

Also known as an “Intelligent Dairy Assistant,” Ida helps Mitchell monitor cows by combining neck-mounted sensors, farm-management systems and machine learning. Because of its machine-learning component Ida is continuously improving its monitoring skills, he said. That helped when the farm’s veterinarian wasn’t able to visit the farm due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Normally the veterinarian would regularly visit the farm to do health checks and detect cows in heat.

Mitchell has been using Ida for just a couple of months but he said he thinks it could help him to improve pregnancy rates.

“For every point you improve on pregnancy rate you save a lot of money,” he said.

Cows at Trim-Bel Valley Dairy have collars with sensors that track seven behaviors – eating, drinking, laying, ruminating, idling, standing and walking. Behavior that indicates an onsite of mastitis, for example, is captured by the sensor and communicated to software that starts a diagnosis based on machine-learning algorithms.

Being able to identify a cow one to two days in advance of a case of mastitis, milk fever, lameness or another condition could translate to shorter duration of the health problem and reduce the amount of antibiotics used, said Julie Larson, U.S. regional sales director for Connecterra, which developed Ida.

Algorithms continue to be built at a given farm because the herd manager is asked to respond to a few questions every day. Ida continues to learn based on the manager’s responses and provides analyses on that particular herd.

“Ida will keep getting smarter,” Larson said. “It will be similar to how Google Maps has continued to improve.”

Ida also uses data from farm-management systems to learn and predict conditions or situations. At least 16 software systems have been integrated into Ida. And it supports third-party data sources such as weather, feed or genetics programs.

Partners such as farmers and veterinarians, or farmers and their nutritionists, can share data to identify issues and set goals. Farmers own the data but can elect to share it with a third party.

Lee Kloeckner, a dairy-nutrition and -production specialist for Ag Partners, has worked with Trim-Bel Valley Dairy for the past four years. He helps develop diets for the farm’s lactating cows and heifers. He discusses cow performance with Mitchell to make the best decisions regarding feed rations.

Mitchell and Kloeckner will use Ida to monitor cow eating and rumination times to manage rations.

“We’re already monitoring the switch from 2019 first-crop haylage to 2020 second-crop haylage,” Kloeckner said.

Artificial intelligence is increasingly being used in many industries including the dairy industry, he said. As the technology becomes less expensive more farmers are likely to use it to make decisions. Processors and consumers also are driving greater use of artificial intelligence and blockchain technology. Blockchain enables multiple computers to store identical transaction records. It could eventually change the way food is tracked through the supply chain. Some companies and their suppliers are already using the technology so they can show consumers how they’re practicing sustainable farming, reducing water consumption or reducing antibiotics, for example.

Alastair Cooper, a senior investment director at ADM Capital, said Ida helps farmers – via predictive intelligence – to drive productivity and increase sustainability. It connects farmers to the value chain while also increasing animal welfare and improving farm efficiency.

Consumers are demanding more information about their food. Artificial intelligence and blockchain technology will help provide them that information, said Victor Cabrera, a dairy-farm-management specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension and a dairy-science professor at UW-Madison. Cabrera and his colleagues are developing the “Dairy Brain,” which integrates precision farming, big-data analytics and Internet of Things technology. The goal of the Dairy Brain is to integrate a dairy farm’s many data streams in real time and use artificial intelligence to analyze the data. That will help farmers to make better decisions to improve feed efficiency and reduce milking costs, for example.

Longer term farmers could use artificial-intelligence technology to make strategic decisions related to reproduction or how long to keep cows. Cabrera and his colleagues are working with a handful of dairy farmers to test technologies. They’ve also met with companies such as Connecterra to discuss commonalities.

Mitchell sees the technologies as continually learning and improving with time, he said. He couldn’t ask for anything more from an assistant. 

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.