From touching udders to touching screens

In Southwestern Ontario, Canada, Sytse and Anita Heeg milk their 156 cows with three DeLaval VMS™. By using technology to provide data from their herd, they allow for better decision making and changes in farm practices where it is needed the most.

 

 

 

Family farmer

Early on, Sytse and Anita wanted a family farm that could run without having to rely on hiring help to milk. They also wanted the flexibility to work with crops and manage the cows. 

Early exposure to data ─ a learning curve

Growing up at the home farm Sytse’s exposure to data was limited. When he started milking his own herd with robots, he experienced a significant learning curve. From seeing the milk going into the weigh jars in the parlour, to seeing the production yields on a computer and having this information at a quarter level was brand new data. The data from the robots required Sytse, who from the beginning had limited experience with technology in cow management, to make difficult decisions. With time, he developed the understanding of data and sensor based management that only experience can teach.
Farmer
“To say that you want more data is one thing, but to understand what it gives and how to use it, requires knowledge and experience,” Sytse explains.

The robots provides herd data; daily milk yield, milk flow, conductivity and cow behaviour. With this knowledge the family created their own cow health report. This was prior to DeLaval automatically generating such reports for producers. When the activity went down they knew they had to investigate. They would apply changes in their farm practices on health issues that were found.

“From the time we started in 2007, we knew there was always room for improvement. The conception rates were very good but udder health was a major focus,” Sytse explains.

On-farm laboratory

Following challenges with udder health and cases of clinical mastitis at the farm they decided to take a proactive approach to the problem. In 2009, they inquired about DeLaval Herd Navigator™ and were intrigued by the amount of data it collected. They became the first reference farm in North America in 2011. Herd Navigator™ was appealing to the family because it is an on-farm laboratory providing information for ketosis (via Beta-hydroxybutyrate) on fresh cows, mastitis (via an enzyme called Lactate dehydrogenase, LDH) for all milking cows, progesterone curves for cows to be inseminated and urea at four different levels based on stage of lactation.

“Thinking back to the start of our journey with Herd Navigator™ we experienced some difficulties understanding the data. We found the ketosis model easy and simple to use, it found the cows and they could be treated. Reproduction allowed us to act sooner on abnormal cows and have a better conception rate, therefore using less semen. It was an easy transition into using the ketosis and reproduction biomodels.  When it came to  udder health, I had to open my mind and allow what I thought about mastitis to be challenged by the real facts from the system,” Sytse explains.

“We used to think that a cow either had mastitis or was healthy. When we saw clots from the udder at the same time or after Herd Navigator™, we were confused. We thought that Herd Navigator would notify us before we could see it ourselves.  We did not understand subclinical and chronic mastitis versus a new infection. We also thought that if a cow had mastitis (physical change in milk) then she needed antibiotics,” Sytse continues.

Now, with the help of a team of advisors including the herd veterinarian and DeLaval, Sytse and Anita have a better understanding of mastitis. They have learned that not each cow with clots requires or would benefit from treatment. They have also learned about different pathogens, how they act and how to respond to them. They know how to treat the right cow at the right time with the right product and how to manage their herd. 

The daily routine at Heeg Dairy Inc is developed by utilising data

Morning
10 minutes on the computer looking at data in the reports. Find flagged cows that need attention before doing physical chores in the barn.

  • High activity cows with low Progesterone –      inseminate.
  • Ketosis Cows – treat Ketosis according to SOP of Propylene      Glycol 500 ml/day for two days.
  • Cow Health Index Cows – high cows that have      increased conductivity/LDH will be treated according to the farm SOP of      anti-inflammatory, supportive fluids if needed and antibiotics if a gram      positive pathogen is cultured. 

Any time that they are in the barn
Keep an eye on cow behaviour, which includes time spent scraping stalls, delivering feed with the TMR mixer or generally walking through the barn

Late Afternoon/Evening
10 minutes on the computer to repeat the morning routine of finding cows that need attention before carrying out physical chores in the barn. 

At some point throughout the day
Spend another 20 minutes reading another set of reports:

Progesterone reports – which cows are pregnant or not cycling.

Mastitis Reports – looking for cows to culture. Regular herd testing is done via Lactanet and provides data on SCC, fat and protein.  Conductivity and LDH is provided by the VMS and Herd Navigator.  Together they are all part of the udder health toolbox.

  • Subclinical cows found with high LDH/SCC are cultured.
  • Treatment is based on the pathogen found.
  • Chronic cows with no pathogen found or gram negative are left alone.
  • Free-stall maintenance, cow cleanliness and robot maintenance are key management areas to work on when challenges increase from environmental bacteria.

Making the most of technology

Heeg Dairy Inc is an efficient dairy farm where the familiy enjoys life beyond milking cows. The robots, Herd Navigator™ and Lactanet all provide data that allow the family to manage the herd with minimal external labour. The power is in knowledge, the profitabilityis in action.

A healthy animal provides more milk, at a better quality and for more years. By providing better conditions for animals, farmers can improve the animal’s health and longevity while at the same time improving farm profitability and increasing efficiency. 

Authors:  Sytse and Anita Heeg and Nancy Charlton, DVM DeLaval at the National Mastits Council 2021