Improving cow comfort, production through automation

Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy stacks parlor technologies for better outcome

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KEWAUNEE, Wis. – Since installing cow monitoring and parlor task systems, productivity at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy has skyrocketed. Pregnancy rates are up while hormone use is down, and minimal headlock use is saving time and labor for the farm.
“We have a lot of new technology at the dairy that is benefitting both cows and people,” said Chris Szydel, herd manager at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy. “We can build custom reports, and cows are checked with no disruption or knowledge of what is being done. The systems are also easy for our employees to use. They adapt to new technology well, and the fact it’s easy for our people is very important to us.”
During the Connect Summit June 15-17 in Nashville, Tennessee, Szydel discussed how animal monitoring provides data-driven management for breeding, herd health and labor efficiencies at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy. The dairy is using the Allflex monitoring system for heat detection and cow health as well as Dairy Comp’s ParlorBoss system for streamlining herd health tasks. All cows wear monitoring collars which they receive as heifers and wear for the duration of their time at the dairy.
Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy milks about 6,500 cows on two sites near Kewaunee. Cows are milked three times a day in one of the farm’s three parlors – a 72-stall rotary, a double-20 parallel and a double-18 parallel. The farm is home to a crossbred herd in which they start with Holstein then breed to Jersey. Once they have a Holstein-Jersey cross, they breed back to Holstein twice.
“We want to build a little smaller animal as the Holsteins were getting too big on us,” Szydel said. “The crossbreds are working out really well. They’re creating higher components and have better health traits too.”
A couple years ago, the farm was using headlocks on every cow but slowly went away from that practice.
“Our systems help us monitor cows without having to set headlocks,” Szydel said. “We’re doing most of the work on the wheel in the parlor or in a separate pen as cows come off the wheel. With the new monitoring system, cows walk past the monitors or readers in the barns, and it lets us know who needs attention without disrupting the animals.”
Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy is monitoring fresh cows every day with the system.
“We went away from daily checks and are utilizing reports from the computer system to check fresh cows that need attention, while we let everybody else go,” Szydel said.
One report shows which fresh cows are ready to move, and the dairy is now moving cows seven days a week out of the fresh pen and blending those animals into the milking herd.
“This really helps out the parlor for efficiency, so we’re not slug feeding a bunch of new heifers in, which is more frustrating for cow movers,” Szydel said. “Moving fresh cows every day provides a more consistent and easier flow for everyone involved.”
The pre-fresh cow monitoring report reveals which animals are in steam-up pens and who to check. It will not detect every cow that is going to freshen but informs the farm which cows need to be looked at based off of rumination and activity.
“Some of the pre-fresh animals we see will be at the feed bunk eating with the calf’s feet sticking out; the system is not going to detect those cows,” Szydel said. “But if there’s a cow low on rumination or activity, there’s a good chance she’s laying down in the freestall barn. That information will show up on the computer screen for us in our maternity pens, letting our maternity team know to check those cows.”
The breeding report indicates which cows to breed for the day, while the health report flags cows that need attention, which would be those animals whose health index has dropped below 80. The farm made alternations in its breeding program – going from breeding once a day to now breeding cows in the morning and afternoon.
“We increased insemination rates by breeding twice a day and are able to get more cows bred back sooner,” Szydel said.
In the past, the farm ran a 65% insemination rate using double OvSynch and tail chalk, which jumped up to 77% when utilizing collars and double OvSynch.
“The system is finding the cows, and we’re breeding those cows back before they get a chance to get preg checked,” Szydel said. “When it comes time for herd check day, we’re finding there are fewer open cows and more pregnant cows.”
The dairy is also saving time with its veterinarian. Previously, it would take about an hour to check a group of cows with headlocks, but now by separating cows, it takes about 15 minutes to check a pen.
“We’re only separating the ones we need and are also giving our hormone shots on the rotary, which has created better cow comfort,” Szydel said. “There is less overall stress on the cows as well as less heat stress, and we’re seeing better feet on the cows. We’re also using fewer hormones by finding cows that need to be bred back sooner.”
Since starting the activity monitoring system four years ago, the pregnancy rate has risen from 31% to 34%, and the number of cows receiving hormones dropped from 83% to 47%. The dairy’s 21-day pregnancy rate improved greatly. In 2018, the palpated pregnancy rate was 60% with 40% of cows open. In 2022, 80% of cows are being found pregnant with only 20% open.
“The new system is finding cows coming into heat, and we’re breeding those cows back sooner, which is saving days in milk,” Szydel said.
Because the system is finding greater than 95% of cows that abort, the farm has stopped doing follow-up pregnancy checks and confirm checks, which were done on all cows in the past.
“Eliminating this step saves a lot of time, and we’re able to make decisions on those animals whether to rebreed or put on a do not breed list,” Szydel said. “We also save labor costs and stress on cows by eliminating headlock time.”
The breeding report shows the number of days since last heat along with breeding window, heat index and sire options. The report lets the farm know whether to breed the cow back to Jersey or Holstein and if they are going to use sexed, conventional or beef semen.
Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy began using the ParlorBoss system 2.5 years ago, which Szydel said was a game changer for the farm. A worker standing on the parlor platform uses the reader or TV screen in the parlor which shows what cows are on the wheel and what type of attention they need for the day.
Level-one tasks include cows that are high attention or need to be moved that day, while level-two tasks indicate cows requiring vaccinations. Numbers are mounted above the stall so workers can take a look at the number of the rotary and the cow number and match that up to who is on the wheel for accuracy and compliance to ensure the right animal is receiving care. The farm uses a pulse needle-less system when doing vaccinations or giving hormone shots on the wheel.
“This needle-less system is a great benefit to us,” Szydel said. “We’re in the process of becoming leukosis negative, so we want to make sure we eliminate blood transfer from animal to animal. By having a needle-less system, we’re able to cleanly give vaccines without having to worry about needles.”
Szydel said they see less reaction from cows by using this system. The person giving the shots can adjust the air pressure depending on whether the shot is being administered subcutaneous or intramuscular. If given subcutaneous, pressure on the machines is lowered, and if doing intramuscular, they raise the pressure. Typically, only one person is needed on the wheel, except for herd check day or vaccination day.
“In the past, we would set headlocks for the whole pen and would have to scan every cow,” Szydel said. “But with the new systems, we’re just checking the cows that we need.”

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