IN recent years, there has been increased interest in technologies that automatically monitor cow behavior and physiology, and the University of Minnesota Dairy Extension has been conducting research with sensors that record data such as cud chewing time, rumen temperature and resting time.
Additionally, extension has been investigating, in collaboration with Ricardo Chebel in the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, how feeding, resting and rumination (cud chewing) times during the close-up dry period are associated with transition cow health disorders early in lactation.
From an animal welfare and health perspective, and considering that cows today are more commonly housed in groups instead of individually, Dr. Marcia Endres explained that the use of sensors during the transition period can be a valuable tool to predict cows at risk for transition health disorders and also to evaluate the overall transition management on the dairy.
"Cows that are more susceptible to stresses in their environment will be sentinels (the 'canary in the mine') to alert us for the need to improve housing, handling, nutrition, feeding management, grouping and so on," Endres noted.
One of the studies with 925 Jersey cows found that there was a significant reduction in daily close-up dry period feeding times for cows that developed metritis, ketosis, retained placenta, lameness at zero days in milk and lameness at 35 days in milk compared to cows without the respective disorder during early lactation. There was also a tendency for a reduction in feeding time for cows with displaced abomasum and cows carrying twins.
The researchers collected the feeding behavior data using cameras — what they called a very tedious and long process — but Endres said automated monitors currently on the market can collect this information using loggers on the legs of the cows and recorders at the feed bunk. Those same loggers can also record resting (lying) time and cow activity.
"We found that lying time could also be a predictor of transition cow disorders but possibly less reliable than feeding behavior or more difficult to interpret," she explained. "Activity and lying time might be more important to detect cows in heat. More research is needed, and we are hopeful to receive some federal funding to work with these loggers in the next year."
Preliminary work with rumination sensors fitted on 296 Holstein cows from approximately 20 days before to 20 days after calving found that there was a tendency for retained placenta to be associated with rumination time and that from four days before to 10 days after calving, cows with retained placenta had significantly reduced rumination time.
Although there was no association between subclinical hypocalcemia (low calcium concentrations in the blood) and rumination time overall, the interaction between subclinical hypocalcemia and days relative to calving was associated with rumination time, which meant that on days 16, 13, 11 and zero before calving, animals with subclinical hypocalcemia had reduced rumination times. The concentration of calcium in the blood was correlated with rumination time.
Similarly, ketosis was not associated with rumination time, but the interaction between ketosis and days relative to calving was associated with rumination time; therefore, from days 6 to 17 after calving, animals with ketosis had reduced rumination time. Concentration of beta-hydroxy-butyrate (a ketone used to diagnose ketosis) was correlated with rumination time.
The studies revealed that transition cow disorders were associated with altered rumination time during the transition period. Additionally, preliminary work by Chebel looking at the specificity and sensitivity of correctly detecting disorders found that cud chewing data may be used for diagnosis of stillbirths, subclinical hypocalcemia, retained placenta and metritis.
Endres said this suggests that rumination sensors can be a valuable tool to predict which cows are at risk for transition disorders.
Along with Brad Heins at the West Central Research & Outreach Center in Morris, Minn., the University of Minnesota Extension Service is currently using rumination sensors with 230 cows on pasture to investigate the use of these sensors for disease and heat detection.
"Cows housed in groups at pasture are also difficult to visually evaluate, so sensors can be our 'eyes' 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Endres explained. "The sensors continued to work even as we battled the coldest winter in the last 40 years in Minnesota."
Like all agricultural technology, precision dairy technology has the potential to change the industry and also provides a better glimpse into many aspects of dairy cattle management. Endres encouraged producers interested in precision dairy technology to attend the Precision Dairy Conference & Expo on June 24-25, 2015.
Growing dairy profit margins on the heels of strong export demand are giving producers more opportunities to improve and repair farm equipment and facilities, according to Purdue University Extension dairy specialist Mike Schutz.
While Mexico continues to be the largest buyer of dairy products exported from the U.S., growing demand in Southeast Asia for powdered milk and whey has helped boost on-farm profits. That, coupled with lower feed prices, has put dairy farmers in better financial positions than what they've faced in recent years.
"These improved margins really provide an opportunity for producers to keep up on the things they've had to delay," Schutz said. "That could mean doing facility or equipment repairs or even installing new and improved milking equipment that could ultimately lead to higher milk quality premiums — anything you can do to save on labor costs and improve operation efficiency."
Since 2009, dairy producers have faced a lot of volatility in milk prices. Between 2004 and 2008, record profits encouraged dairy farmers to expand the national herd at a rapid rate.
However, when the global recession struck, the bottom fell out of the U.S. dairy markets, leaving producers with an abundance of cattle and more dairy products than they could sell. That resulted in a nearly 50% decrease in dairy prices almost overnight.
Prices have rebounded since then. According to Schutz, milk prices in 2013 were the most stable they've been since 2000, but feed prices remained high for much of the year because of short supplies resulting from the 2012 drought. It wasn't until late 2013 that feed prices started to come down as new grain and forage crops were harvested.
"While dairy producers certainly welcomed the reasonably stable milk and dairy product prices last year, high feed costs still resulted in tight margins," Schutz said. "A large 2013 corn crop in the eastern Corn Belt, along with moderating demand for ethanol production, has driven down feed prices."
Another facet of the complex reasons for improving U.S. dairy margins is that producers in Australia and New Zealand, both major dairy production countries, aren't able to expand quickly enough to meet the demands of Southeast Asian markets.
"U.S. exports to Southeast Asia, especially China, are growing because the Asian demand exceeds the expansion rates in Australia and New Zealand," Schutz said.
However, even though this is good news for U.S. producers, Schutz pointed out that they still need to be cautious.
"Nothing right now leads us to believe the bottom will fall out of the dairy market in the near future unless something changes internationally, but at this point, we also can't forecast whether herd expansion would be a safe investment," he said.
Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) ended last year with strong operating results, according to its recently released financial report. The cooperative's adjusted net income was $61.3 million for 2013. DFA's net sales totaled $12.8 billion for 2013, a 6% increase from $12.1 billion in 2012.
In 2013, DFA directed the marketing of 60.6 billion lb. of milk for both members and others through its consolidated businesses and related affiliates. This represents approximately 30% of total milk production in the U.S.
Payments to members for milk marketed totaled $7.9 billion in 2013, compared to $7.3 billion in 2012. This increase is primarily a result of the higher U.S. annual average all-milk price, which averaged $20.01/cwt.
Returns to members in 2013 totaled $41.9 million, with $23.3 million distributed from the cooperative's allocated patronage and $18.6 million through its various capital retirement programs.
DFA continued to grow its commercial investments in 2013. Its Fluid Milk & Ice Cream Division acquired Dairy Maid Dairy in Frederick, Md., and the Ingredients Division focused on export opportunities with global customers in strategic markets. DFA exported 222 million lb. of product in 2013, making it a fourth consecutive year of record export sales.
In 2013, DFA broke ground on two new plants. A ceremonial groundbreaking was conducted Sept. 20 in Linwood, N.Y., for a new cold process milk separation plant. The plant, which is scheduled to be completed later in 2014, will produce cream and skim milk for a range of regional customers. A second dairy ingredient plant is currently under construction in Cass City, Mich., that will produce high-quality condensed whole and skim milk and cream.
Earnings of DFA affiliates were $72.8 million in 2013, compared to $57.6 million in 2012. Cash distributions from DFA affiliates totaled $38 million in 2013, compared to $36.4 million in 2012.