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Using Technology to Create an Animal-Centered Environment

The following article was written by Sue Hart for Progressive Dairyman.

Using technology allows you to automate, monitor and manage your barn environment from the palm of your hand. It minimizes human error and allows for focus on other tasks around the dairy instead of trying to control the barn. Once you have the strategy fine-tuned, technology tools help maintain a consistent environment and monitor performance 24/7, so you don’t have to, and alert you of anything that needs attention.

Why is creating a consistent animal-centered environment important to a dairy operation?

Without an effective ventilation and cooling strategy, heat stress can be costly to the dairy. Heat stress is associated with reduced dry matter intake (DMI), dips in milk production and pregnancy rates, increased lameness and disease incidence, and even animal loss. Did you know that heifer calves born to heat-stressed animals will produce less milk for the first 30 weeks after their first calving? So, don’t forget to keep those dry cows cool, so you don’t see long-term effects. Heifer calves can also experience heat stress leading to lower rates of gain, being more susceptible to disease, increased time to puberty and lower production once they enter the milking herd.

So how can dairies be proactive in minimizing those dreaded summer production and reproduction dips and lameness? Technology may be the answer.

Taking control of your barn with technology

The ability to use technology to identify seasonal trends and identify heat stress-related issues is crucial to being able to adjust your strategy and being proactive instead of reactive. Dairy producers need to take control of their barns through automation and technology. By adapting to the changing environmental conditions around the cow, you are able to keep her happy and profitable.

How can technology help dairies implement strategies to be proactive and maintain a consistent animal-centered environment year-round? Cows love consistency, and as Alex De Jager from Vista Verde Dairy in California put it, “It’s tremendous what cows will do for you when you make them comfortable in summer heat.”

For the first step, let technology identify areas where your ventilation and cooling strategy works well and where it needs adjustment to be more effective. Technology can help troubleshoot by bringing together real-time and historic weather data, ventilation, cooling, lighting and other barn equipment into a single platform, allowing you to monitor the back-of-the-barn environment. Having the data on one platform allows users to see how the barn is functioning visually through customizable graphs and reports. This visual representation allows you to find pens that may not be performing properly and to troubleshoot why, so you can adjust for maximum performance.

Since the targeted time a cow spends lying each day is over 50%, that should be the first focus in your strategy. Do they have the proper air speed over the beds at 6 feet (2 meters) of 5 mph (2.2 meters per second)? Then take a look at the feed lane (17%) and parlor holding area (14%). If animals in the holding area are not properly cooled, this can be a bottleneck for your reproduction. Each animal creates a large amount of heat. High-producing animals can produce up to 5,000 BTUs per hour of heat. Heat builds quickly when cows are close together in the holding pen. Therefore, without an adequate cooling strategy and ventilation, the animal’s core body temperature will rise and enter them into heat stress, which can lead to early embryonic loss. Unlike humans, cows can enter heat stress at 68°F (20°C) or at a temperature humidity index (THI) of 72 (22 THI C) with 50% humidity.

Once you have your ventilation and cooling strategy fine-tuned, let technology take over and automate it. No need for constant monitoring and manual adjustments that may or may not be made at the right time. Using sensors and real-time weather data, automation can take over maintaining your barn's environment automatically. The system will ramp up the ventilation based on temperature and turn on soaking or high-pressure fogging, open and close curtains, control long-day and short-day lighting, and even run your flush system, all as needed. Technology can create that consistent animal-centered environment that cows love and thrive in.

Taking it one step further, technology can allow for pre-cooling of animals before they experience severe heat and continued cooling after the heat has dissipated. However, just because the temperature has dropped and we think it is now cool, and ventilation and cooling can be ramped down, the cow may still be hot, so don’t ramp down too soon. If you have the technology to monitor heavy breathing, the ability to monitor and integrate panting rate may allow extending of a higher ventilation rate into the late evening when heat stress will peak, until the cows have reduced their core body temperatures sufficiently to where no panting is detected.

So what happens if you are letting technology control you barn and something goes wrong with the system? Technology can not only automate but also monitor the system 24/7; it is always working for you. If something is not performing as expected, the technology alerts a designated person, and they can then investigate the issue and make appropriate adjustments as needed. Because the data is all in one location and at your fingertips, you may be able to troubleshoot and make the needed adjustment right from your phone.

How do you read the data?

After you have a technology system set up in your barn and you’ve started receiving data in the form of numbers, graphs and reports, how do you know what to look for to maintain consistency in your barn’s environment? Let’s take a look at a few examples.

First, how do you tell if your barn is performing as expected? Figure 1 is looking at the inside temperature versus the outside temperature by pen. Do you see any pens that are not consistently below outside temperature? If there are pens that show their inside temperature is higher than the outside temperature, why? Is it due to overstocking, more cows, more heat? If so, you may need to adjust your ventilation and cooling strategy. Are all fans performing properly? Any time the inside temperature is not consistently below the outside temperature, you can receive an alert to investigate and make adjustments as needed. The goal is to automate a consistent animal-centered environment to provide healthier, more productive animals.


Next, are animals cooled during and after high-heat days effectively? You can start with Figure 1 then dig in further. You can use technology to record heavy breathing, which indicates severe heat stress, to determine if any pens are experiencing high levels of heavy breathing and then find out why. Figure 2 helps you troubleshoot. Is the stocking density in a pen causing additional heat? Are the fans working properly? Do you have the needed number of fans and are they properly placed to achieve proper airflow over the beds? Is the soaking or high-pressure fogging functioning properly with the proper dry time? The graph below shows an average temperature combined with heavy breathing in all the pens in barn 7 and also lists questions that may help determine why the pen may not be performing according to goals.


Technology can also help maintain the environment for your calves. Figure 3 shows data for a dairy experiencing respiratory problems with their calves. Using technology, the users saw spikes in ammonia levels, shown in the boxes. By using technology to troubleshoot, the dairy adjusted their cleaning schedule to eliminate the ammonia spikes, and it resulted in healthier calves.

Through technology and automation, you can give your animals the consistent animal-centered environment they thrive in and have a more stable cash flow for the operation. By utilizing technology tools at your fingertips, you can level out those production and reproduction dips in the summer and lameness in the fall that can be costly to a dairy.

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