Panelists adopt technology to fit needs of dairy businesses

Farmers share insight at Data and Innovation Summit

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – The dairy industry has long been an industry of growth and success with the adaptation of technology to better understand and use data available on each farm.
“Data is one of the most important things we generate,” Robert Webb said. “Data is worth a lot to me. There’s an obligation, as a purebred breeder, to share important data with the industry to move along.”
Webb owns Summit Farms and Webb-Vue Holsteins where he and his family milk 650 cows near Plymouth, Wisconsin.
Webb was joined by three other farmers – Mack Drees, of Peshtigo, Wisconsin; Chris Szydel, of Kewaunee, Wisconsin and Dr. Portia Seckerson of Rochester, Minnesota – who spoke of their experience and reasoning for adapting varying technologies on their farms during the Data and Innovation Summit June 30 in Sioux Falls. The event garnered the attention of National Holstein Convention attendees as well as commercial producers in the Midwest.     

Drees go all in with dairy tools
Drees and his family were at a crossroads in their dairying career, wanting to continue the family operation but knowing their then-current structure was not feasible for their long-term goals. At the time, they were milking 90 cows and had limited use of technology on the farm.
In 2015, the family expanded to 250 cows and installed four automated milking systems at Drees Dairy Farm LLC.
“That is what we decided we had to do to keep this a family farm with just our family,” Drees said. “We have 250 employees, the cows, and if they’re not happy, we are not happy.”
The implementation of technology has accelerated the family’s breeding program with genomic testing and activity and heat detection, herd health and overall performance of each cow with consistent milk testing.
While Drees and his family implemented varying technology all at once, he said there were expectations with each new system.
The Peshtigo dairyman has found that regardless of the technology and its intended purpose, the biggest asset is the data collected. Drees uses the data to make better breeding decisions in a timely manner.
“When we went for robots, we did it all at once, and it was a really big learning curve,” Drees said. “We had to have a full grasp on how we were utilizing the data. If you don’t use the data, then maybe you have a lot of wasted money there and that can be a tough road ahead.”
In the future, Drees hopes the technology companies will communicate better so that the farm’s data on breeding, milk production, herd health and more can be useful across platforms.
“As dairy farmers, we’re in the driver seat right now,” Drees said. “It’s easy for us to sit, but what we cannot do is not give our feedback (to these companies). We have to tell them what works well and what we want.”  

Webb is cautiously optimistic of industry innovations  
It was the late 1980s when Webb implemented a record-keeping system on his farm. That decision was the result of a devastating fire where all previous records were hand-written in a notebook and lost in the flames.
“The fact that we didn’t have breeding information was a loss that was hard to start over,” Webb said. “Now, we store it. It’s important to start with those records.”
Today, with the use of an activity monitoring system, milk testing, classification data and embryo work, Webb’s herd averages 100 pounds of milk per day and the health of the herd has never been better.
Yet, with all the technology on the farm, Webb’s greatest asset has been his employees.
“If I did anything right, it was to hire really good people to manage our farm,” Webb said. “It’s important to work with people who are deeply invested with this information just as it’s important to use this technology.”
With the work of his trusted and skilled team, Webb has been able to put a renewed focus on each individual cow.
“Maintaining milk quality is our most important task,” Webb said. “If we’re not selling milk, we’re not getting a check and that comes down to cow health. If you can’t manage one cow, you can’t manage 100, you can’t manage 1,000.”
In time, Webb is hopeful to address mobility on his farm by analyzing data collected through genomics.
“There are cooperative efforts that are using detailing motion of a cow and her ability to move,” Webb said. “I’m excited to get the research and breed out problems we have with that.  Cautious optimism is what I feel when I think of data in the dairy industry.”
    
Technology, data allows Szydel to manage each cow
Szydel has been an integral employee of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy for 27 years. The herd manager oversees the 6,500-cow Holstein-Jersey crossbred herd that is housed on two farm sites.
As the dairy has developed, so has the use of technology to make decisions that enable the best care for each cow.
“There is a lot of technology coming out, and we have a full-time electrician on the dairy, but we are limited at how fast we can get the systems implemented,” Szydel said. “With all the programs and maximizing those systems, that’s helped us on labor efficiencies and knowing the cows are taken care of.”
Notably, with a herd monitoring system and DairyComp 305 for data entry, Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy has increased milk production by 5 pounds, reduced hormone use by 40% and lowered the cull rate by 16%, among other successes.
There is a higher compliance among employees and a developed system for checks and balances, said Szydel.
“We really depend on technology and make sure we’re caring for the cows to the best of our abilities,” he said.
Before implementing each technology, Szydel and his team evaluate its purpose and benefit for the farm. Szydel considers the return on investment and if the system can be intertwined with another existing one on the farm.
“We’re trying to grab new technology as fast as we can, and we’re working with our teams,” Szydel said. “It takes a lot to incorporate it, and our team is great at adapting to it.”
Next on the list for this farm are sort gates to help with labor savings.
“We want to take care of the animals in a timely manner,” Szydel said. “It’s also a checks and balances list checked off.”

Seckerson, family make survival decision to adopt technology
Blue Horizon Dairy Farms began down the path of technology and data by force after a farm accident shifted the outlook of the farm.
“It was about a year and a half ago,” Seckerson said. “My brother died in a farm accident and that moved us into technology. That day when he passed, I was in the parlor milking cows because we didn’t have someone show up to work. My dad wanted to keep farming, so we had to figure out a way to do it.”
Unlike the other farmers on the panel who spoke of evaluating the various technologies and calculating returns on investment before implementing, Seckerson said her family’s adaptation was purely a survival decision.
“And, it’s been a great decision,” she said.
The 700-cow farm uses a herd health monitoring system and pays particular attention to the rumination activity.  
“We developed a rumination protocol to help our employees troubleshoot problems when I’m not there,” Seckerson said. “It helps them manage feed bunk and heat abatement, for example.”
Seckerson owns a veterinary practice in southern Minnesota and has adapted similar technology on her clients’ farms to help develop better protocols based on the data retrieved.
Using data and technology goes beyond the milking herd for Seckerson. With the youngstock, Seckerson and her family have also installed a chlorine dioxide pump, which has essentially eliminated cryptosporidiosis and lung ultrasounds.
If technology assists in the day-to-day operations of Seckerson’s farm, then it is something they consider implementing.
“We want to streamline things and make it easier for our employees and simple to follow,” Seckerson said. “We’re doing all this to keep going to the next generation.”

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