Dairy farmers milk tech to keep herds fat, happy, profitable

Dairy farmers have been technology pioneers for decades, and they're still ahead of the herd

When US retailing giant Wal-Mart began its push to integrate state-of-the-art radio frequency ID technology into its supply chain four years ago, the world took notice. But one industry might have greeted the announcement with a collective ho-hum. Dairy farms, which began using computerized record management systems in the 1950s, have been using electronic smart tags and sensors to manage dairy herds since the early '80s.

Since 1991, the number of dairy farms in the US has dropped by more than half, to 75,140, and the remaining farms are getting bigger. As dairy farms consolidate and expand, they are increasingly relying on a range of IT systems, sensors and wireless technologies to support that growth.

Dairy operations use technology to help improve health, breeding and milk production. The result: milk output per cow has increased by about 15 percent over that same period, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

"As you get bigger, having information at your fingertips is a lot more valuable, says Mary Wilson, president of Thomas Farms of Garland Maine, which manages about 420 dairy cows. And in a capital-intensive business with tight margins, small increases in productivity can make a big difference.

Dairy farm operators now use communications technologies such as wired Ethernet, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and RFID. IP video cameras monitor animals in the barns. Biometric sensors include pedometers that measure each cow's activity level and emerging temperature sensor technologies that detect reproductive heat cycles and early signs of illness. Computerized systems in the barns, in the back office, at feed-mixing stations and in the milking parlors are now integrated and centralized around ISO standard passive RFID tags, each with a unique, USDA approved 15-digit identifier.

"These systems provide a means for ongoing, real-time monitoring of the performance of the business, right down to the individual cows," says Terry Smith, president and CEO of Dairy Strategies.

Overall, about one in five dairy operations use on-farm computers according to the USDA -- a growth rate of about 14 percent since 1991 -- and penetration is much higher in large farms, say dairy system vendors.

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