FOUNTAIN, Minn. – Some days on a dairy farm start exactly as planned and go without a hitch, but other days, maybe most days, something unexpected comes up. For Trailside Holsteins, the day started with a sick cow needing treatment.
“It’s actually a dry cow that I probably would have never known about, but we have the cow manager system,” said Michael Johnson of Trailside Holsteins. “That popped up overnight saying, ‘Hey, this cow is sick.’”
Trailside started using the cow manager system about five years ago. It works by clipping a tracking and monitoring tag onto a RFID (radio-frequency identification) tag that they were already using for the parlor.
The system tracks the cow’s movements, when they eat, their rumination and their relative body temperature.
It was the cow’s temperature that alerted the system, indicating something was wrong with her.
“It's relative to the group that she's in because it's an external ear temperature, so if she deviates from her group significantly, that's when it'll bring up the temperature alarm,” Michael said.
The cow that came up sick had a very low temperature compared to the rest of the group.
“She definitely deviated. Her ears were ice cold and she had no circulation going to the ears,” he said.
Before even going to look at the cow, Michael reviewed the cow’s history for the last few days and saw that she had also gone off feed and her activity had declined to nearly no activity.
“I knew it was not good. Before I went to even look at this cow, I knew it was not going to be a good diagnosis,” he said. “By looking at her graphs and her trending over time, I can basically diagnose a cow without even going to look at them now, so I feel pretty confident.”
After reviewing the cow’s history and then pulling her out of the group into a sick pen, it became apparent that this cow has a twist somewhere in her lower digestive tract.
She didn’t “ping” like a displaced abomasum would and she didn’t show symptoms of any respiratory issues like pneumonia. She’s a dry cow, so mastitis wasn’t the source. Michael sleeved the cow and listened to her heart.
He relayed the information he gathered with his veterinarian over the phone and the vet agreed with his diagnosis. This unfortunate cow has a blocked intestine, likely in the cecum, and there is not much that can be done for her.
“Sometimes they seem to fix themselves, but with this one, there's nothing coming through,” he said. “It doesn't happen very often, maybe once a year that I'll have something like this.”
He did give her some intravenous fluids in the morning to keep her from getting dehydrated and maybe she’ll turn around.
What is interesting is that while she was in the pen with the rest of the group, this cow looked fine. She easily could have been missed by a health checker walking the pens.
“This system has been a game changer for us,” Michael said. “I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago for the National Milk Producers annual meeting, and if something like this happens when I'm gone, I’m able to look up the cows on my phone and call back home to let them know who to breed or who to check for sickness.”
All heat detection on the farm is done using the cow management system. The system alerts when a cow’s activity starts to spike, indicating she is coming into heat and is messing around with the other cows more.
“I used to breed cows at 50 days and then we’d back off to 60 days for a volunteer waiting period,” he said. “Now, I'm all the way up to 73 days for my volunteer waiting period, and it’s all because I'm catching the cows in heat sooner and I don't need to breed them quite so early.”
Conception rates for the farm have always been around 50 percent, but the system has helped them better pinpoint exactly when the cow starts heat, is in standing heat and when she is done. They have reduced synchronization down to around 17 percent of the herd.
“I like the data. I like being able to look up a cow anytime, walk in the barn and if that cow kind of looks off, I can look up on my phone and see that she's fine, she's been eating all morning,” he explained. “Other times a cow looks completely fine to me or to our herdsman and she'll come up as an event saying, ‘Hey, this cow is sick. “Yup, she is, the data doesn't lie.’”