Dairy farming is a precarious business. The price of milk rises and falls based on many factors outside farmers’ control – from local supply and demand to Russian trade sanctions. USDA data shows that on average nationally, a gallon of milk that sold for $3.06 last August could be purchased this year for just $2.04.
Such income fluctuations make farm efficiency crucial, and the Internet of Things is well on its way to offering dairy farmers the information they need to reduce livestock losses, improve breeding success, maximize pastures, increase milk production – and even sleep better at night.
The primary factor in a dairy herd’s profitability is efficient reproduction. The primary factor in that is successfully detecting each time a cow is in heat. Approximately 50 percent of heats go undetected on the average U.S. dairy farm, costing the U.S. dairy industry an estimated $600 million annually.
MooMonitor is one device shown to reduce missed heats. In a Kansas State University study, it successfully identified estrus 88.6 percent of the time.
Developed by Dairymaster, of County Kerry, Ireland, MooMonitor is a collar fitted with sensors that track movement. Data is transferred wirelessly to a base station and uploaded to a website. Farmers receive text alerts identifying cows that have come into heat, and can go online to review data and share it with artificial insemination (AI) vendors.
In the milking parlor, farmers can integrate the MooMonitor with electronic gates that steer animals where the farmer wants them to go next. The system will automatically guide cows into a separate holding pen for AI.
The IoT is also helping to make calving safer. Dublin-based Moocall produces a wireless sensor of the same name. The device sends a text alert to the farmer’s phone, on average one hour before calving. From a laptop or phone, farmers can review a history of their calving events, check their network strength, and view remaining battery charge for each device they own.
Without IoT monitoring, problems in a herd – say a feed issue or sickness – might go unnoticed until milk production drops off and one or more cows require veterinary care.
Mastitis (an infection in the mammary gland) is the dairy industry’s costliest disease. It alone accounts for about $1.8 billion lost annually in milk that can’t be sold, veterinary expenses and livestock losses.
Sensors that continuously measure each individual cow’s condition and behavior can enable farmers to avoid such costs by taking corrective action sooner. For example, a cow’s temperature could rise enough to trigger an alert well before a change in behavior might alert the farmer.
Texas-based VitalHerd is developing a smart pill that stays in a cow’s gut for the duration of its life. Every 15 minutes, the sensor measures core temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, stomach-contraction rate and more. Data is transmitted wirelessly to VitalHerd’s cloud-based herd-management software, which presents the information to farmers in a user-friendly format.
Cows in a pasture tend to stick close to their water sources, which leads to over-grazing in those areas, while other sections with lush grass are underutilized. Two Irish companies have teamed up to help farmers maximize pastures and monitor cows.
True North Technologies, a start-up focused on location technology, and Cambridge Industrial Design have developed a collar containing sensors that pinpoint a cow’s exact location and track its movements. The collar can be used with IoT grass-length monitors and electronic fencing to gently guide cows to greener pastures.
The device also provides data that can be used to correlate movements with specific behaviors, such as grazing, socializing or lying down chewing the cud, which in turn can help farmers fine tune feed and detect illness. The collar is part of a pan-European test project that will conclude in June 2016.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects that food production will have to increase by 70 percent in the next 35 years to accommodate a forecasted global population of 9 billion.
Thanks to the IoT’s potential to increase milk production (by keeping cows healthier and improving breeding efficiency), connected cows seem destined to become standard on dairy farms.
No doubt, too, that farmers will appreciate sleeping more soundly, with fewer interruptions and less worry over their herds.
Image courtesy of Dairymaster.