The days of a dairy farmer sitting on a homemade three-legged wooden stool and hand-milking his or her way through a dozen cows is long gone. Computers have become commonplace throughout all walks of life – including a dairy operation’s milking parlors, barns and pastures. Producers are fully connected to search engines, data processors, research studies and “clouds.” It all leads to the goal of improving profitability, milk quality, animal welfare and the lifestyle of today’s producers – all with just a few clicks of a mouse.

“Technology and increased access to data are enabling dairy farmers to make smarter day-to-day decisions to improve cow health, production and on-farm efficiencies,” said J.W. Schroeder, North Dakota State University-Extension dairy specialist.

Not all dairies make use of every advancement, but the list of possibilities grows longer. All aspects of a cow’s life can be tracked using a radio-frequency-identification tag or a computerized collar. It identifies each animal, monitoring her activities and location. It collects data that provides insights on health, heat stress, feeding, efficiency and estrus cycle. Facial-recognition software is available to identify cows using spots, markings and face shapes. Rumination sensors track abnormal activity that can be an early warning sign of illness or infection. Ankle-attached pedometers monitor exercise activity and structural health.

Technology is not confined to cows; it also extends to equipment. Some operations have cows moving freely about barns, deciding when they want to be milked – with only limited human interaction. Upon entering a robotic milking stall, the cow is identified. She’s fed while a robotic arm disinfects teats and attaches milkers, gently milking with vacuum systems that mimic calf movements. Milk-yield records provide individual animal data including the amount produced, trends and milk components such as protein. Computerized refrigeration units chill milk for safe storage while time-temperature recorders automatically check temperature every 15 minutes. Robots maneuver their way through the alleys, pushing feed closer to bunk fence-lines. Barn computers send text messages when a check on a cow or piece of equipment is necessary.

“Precision dairy farming enhances farmer abilities to provide better cow comfort, improves animal well-being and promotes less antibiotic use,” Schroeder said. “As new innovations become affordable, dairy farmers are adopting technologies that will help them meet global consumer needs and their goal of feeding the world’s growing population.”

The increasing use of solar panels is reducing energy consumption, giving greater control of greenhouse-gas emissions. Methane digesters turn waste, manure and leftover feed into energy. They use large heated tanks where bacteria digest the components producing methane, which in turn produces electricity and heat.

But as is the case with all potential technologies, there may be negatives and shortcomings.

“The basics of doing everything we can to provide the cow with a comfortable minimal-stress environment still hold true,” said Jeffrey Bewley, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky and expert in precision dairy farming. “It’s important to remember that a technology only tells us what is wrong. Good cow people will always be an asset to a dairy farm and prevention is always more effective than treatment.”

Schroder agrees and said, “The addition of precision-dairy techniques does not replace good management systems. But rather it enhances them. It offers new ways of monitoring and improving animal health, well-being and reproduction. In the same way that mechanization and expansion have improved productivity in the past 20 years, precision technologies will drive dairy-industry progress in the future.”

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Bruce Derksen has worked in western Canada’s agricultural industry for more than 30 years. He and his wife live in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada, where he manages logistics at a nearby chemical plant. In his spare time he writes about agricultural-related topics, giving producers up-to-date information about the future of the ag industry.