Evaluating Technologies and Innovations for Dairies
Written by: Dave Lahr, M.S., Form-A-Feed Nutritionist
Dairies have been adopting new technologies for generations. Our grandparents or great-grandparents may have been among the first in the area to use a milking machine, or AI. Can you imagine dairying without bulk tanks and refrigeration, or automatic waterers? Now, robotic milkers and computerized calf feeding systems are common. New tools and technologies are becoming available with increasing frequency.
So how does a dairy manager decide which technologies are right for their operation? The ones with the most enticing advertising, or the one used by that elite herd you just read about?
The right decision is not the same for all operations, so you will need to do some evaluation. Good information is essential in making good decisions about a technology or innovation. You will need to ask questions of yourself, the vendor, and sometimes other unaffiliated parties (lenders, consultants, peers, etc.). Remember that unaffiliated parties are not necessarily unbiased, because everyone has biases based on their experiences, preferences, and “stake in the game”. It’s natural to discount (bias) the value of the unfamiliar, sometimes resulting in a good idea being thrown under the bus. So, you may need to do some of your own digging.
While your veterinarian and nutritionist are important resources, they’re unable to be current on every new technology. But ask them to help you find good information on that innovation you’re considering.
Here are some questions you should ask when evaluating new (or new to you) technology. Not all apply to each operation, technology or decision.
- What will it cost?
- Capital outlay
- Support, maintenance, or ongoing per-cow or per-person costs
- Other required “upgrades”
Not all costs are plainly visible. Software may require new computer hardware, or new wiring may be needed for the automated calf milk feeding system. Alternatively, some costs may be offset by savings in other areas.
- What are the expected results, and value?
- Milk production, components, reproduction, health
- Direct cost savings
- Time or labor savings
- Risk reduction/regulatory compliance
- Employee safety, satisfaction and retention
While value may be realized in many areas, some may be more difficult to quantify.
- How will we measure and evaluate the results of our decision?
- Will it replace something that already needs replacement? If so, the new technology cost is only the “upgrade cost”, not the entire cost.
- How confident are you that your operation will realize the expected result(s)?
- Results at other dairies
Your results may vary from other dairies, or from research, because you may have different needs or practices. How much and what kind of supporting information and research you need depends on the cost and the risk, and your level of trust in the vendor. You don’t need a million dollars of research to support a $1000 decision.
- What is the risk?
- Unrecoverable losses if it doesn’t work for you
- Warranties, guarantees
Can you get a partial refund of capital costs by returning equipment, for example?
- What is the negative risk (what might we lose if we don’t use this technology)? Should I think of this as protection or “insurance” against a loss?
- Can we use partial budgeting to estimate the return on this decision? As much as possible, compare the incremental costs and benefits to see if it adds to the bottom line.
- Who will use this technology in your operation? Do they have (or can they gain) the ability or expertise to use it effectively? Am I willing to send them to training? Will I empower these individuals to use this decision-making tool?
- Am I (are we) an innovator, early adopter, or follower? Will we be “guinea pigs” for this technology or application?
- What are the advantages to being a test herd?
- Is our dairy well suited to be a guinea pig (innovator)?
Some dairies are great innovators, because they have the temperament to work through the sometimes not-so-smooth process of ironing out the wrinkles. Others need everything to be very predictable and concise from the beginning.
After you have answers to the applicable questions, you can better make a decision that will give you satisfaction when looking through the lens of “20/20 Hindsight”.
Important Technologies to Consider
Let’s look at some key areas. Since not all dairies need the same technologies, we’ll try to look at the next possible step for different types of operations, and some under-used old technology. Many of these technologies are widely used on dairies today but will be new to others. This list is certainly not exhaustive.
1. Communication technologies help you better communicate with your employees, vendors, key support people and customers, and get up-to-date information on products, management practices and markets.
Email, Internet and Mobile Communication are essential for modern business, regardless of size. Many dairies should have Wi-Fi internet (with appropriate security) so vendor reps and support personnel can connect to the internet on your site and bring you current information, and so that you can participate in meetings with offsite owners or consultants. It’s a big time and travel saver for dairy team meetings.
2. Monitoring and decision-making tools help track what is happening with cows, feed, inventory, and people, and then help you and your employees make decisions that fit your business plan, goals and management style. Nearly all dairies need production monitoring, ranging from DHI to on-site computerized daily monitoring. Cow management tools like Dairy Comp and others are invaluable in making fact-based decisions on feeding and reproductive strategies, culling, etc. Some sites have invested in the equipment and training for their own pregnancy ultrasound. Many operations get excellent returns with feed tracking and inventory monitors. Ask your current vendors about analytical tools they offer, to help make feeding, health or reproductive decisions.
3. Feeding and milking equipment. Is automated liquid calf feeding and monitoring equipment in your future? Or maybe robotic milkers? Carefully review the types of products and their strengths and weaknesses. Visit several dairies that are using them to help decide if they are right for your operation, and learn how to avoid pitfalls.
4. Crop and livestock genetics. Corn hybrids with higher fiber digestibility or starch availability will make your nutritionist happy, and improve your bottom line. Sexed semen is especially valuable if planning expansion, for use on specific, high genetic-potential cows, or if heifer sales are part of your business. With the genetic and safety advantages of AI, and the heat detection and reproductive management tools available, I am amazed at the number of bulls still used on dairies.
5. Many feed and nutrition products, strategies, and additives are available to meet specific needs or challenges. Some of them fit very specific applications, challenges or needs, while others can have every cow, every day application. Do you have a seasonal issue with a health challenge? Fresh cow transition problems? Heat stress? Short-term use products can provide cost-effective solutions.
If ration formulation and/or nutrient levels are involved in the application of the technology under consideration, you will need closer coordination with your nutritionist than if the product is an additive that does not require ration reformulation. Regardless, your nutritionist is a valuable resource for all types of feed additives and should be kept “in the loop”.
Nutritional products: rumen-protected vitamins and amino acids, chelated trace minerals.
Digestion efficiency products: enzymes (and microbial products that provide them)
Rumen modulators: ionophores and direct-fed microbials
Immune stimulators: botanicals and certain kinds of yeast fractions
Feed storage and quality: forage inoculants, mold inhibitors, flow agents
Cow health: fresh cow drenches
Heat Stress: internal heat-stress relief products
Your decision to implement a given technology should be based on facts and evidence, and cost vs risk. Keep an open mind to minimize bias, but also ask the hard questions, especially if there is significant risk in the case of the technology failing to provide the desired benefit.