Revolutionary dairy technology has improved herd health, halved milking time and increased efficiency, as Sarah Trickett found out when she visited this year’s Dairy Farmer of the Year

Technology has transformed the way we farm, be it the everyday tractor or the mobile phone. But no single piece of technology has been able to understand and manage the cow quite like the AfiFarm herd management software system.

It could be said a farmer using this system probably knows more about his cows than he does his wife, with weights taken at every milking, ketotic cows identified and feed tailored to suit their individual needs, to list a few.

And it’s the individual cow detail generated by using live data that sold the system to Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year Thomas Steele, who milks 420 cows in Kirbubbin, Northern Ireland.

He first saw the technology, which was developed in Israel, while on a visit to South Africa and says he was “blown away” with what it could do. “We were using a recording database, but didn’t know what was happening on a daily basis on the farm. We are so used to basing management decisions on historical data, but AfiFarm uses real-time data, so I know exactly what’s going on with each cow at every milking.”

The management software system was installed along with a new 60-point Fullwood rotary parlour back in 2009, at a total cost of £300,000. But the cost of the programme has more than paid for itself in terms of big benefits in health, feed tailoring and overall efficiency of the herd.

What it is

AfiFarm is a complete software package that gives a wide range of reports such as:

  • Health reports – generated by a combination of weight, yield, milk conductivity and feed intake
  • Daily breeding reports – generated from activity using pedometers, weight pattern of cows and historic data (eg calving data)
  • Conductivity monitoring – highlighting possible mastitic cows
  • Weigh scales monitoring gains and losses, all of which can be used to highlight individual health problems, tailor feed and inform breeding decisions
  • Milking efficiency reports- based on milk speed and yield.

The system is all about individual cows and whatever happens that day, cows that need attention can be automatically drafted off.

Health

Ketotic cows, for example, are highlighted when fresh calved cows are not gaining 5% of milk a day while at the same time losing weight. The system will highlight a cow in negative energy at milking allowing the cow to be drafted off and checked, none of which holds up the milking process.

When a cow is losing weight she will then be put on to an individual feed programme. Mr Steele explains: “All cows receive high-energy propylene glycol which is sprayed on top of feed nuts for two days after calving, but if after the two days some cows are still losing weight, those individuals will continue to receive it.”

Now Mr Steele has seen displaced abomasums drop from about 12 a year down to an average of two. “It means we are not fire-fighting anymore, we are getting in and treating the cow before she has a problem and the software allows this. We are able to pick up cows early that are going into a negative energy balance so can hit with appropriate treatment.”

Mastitis levels have also dropped as a result of monitoring cows at each milking. On the display, while each cow is being milked, it will show her predicted milk yield. If she isn’t meeting this, milk conductivity is not correct or the cow is not performing how she should, it will flag the cow up for inspection.

“We can have cows flagged up with potential mastitis, even before you can see it in the milk. In this case we will draft that individual off, take her temperature and maybe perform a California Milk Test (CMT) to see what the problem is.

“We have noticed mastitic cows begin losing weight three days before we will see a case of mastitis. And we have picked up on E coli cases early and it’s likely, in these cases, if we wouldn’t have done that the cows would have ended up leaving the herd.”

Cases of mastitis have now dropped from 40 cases for every 100 cows to just 26.

Feeding and fertility

Cows are also fed as an individual throughout the whole lactation. The system allocates each cow a specific diet depending on stage of lactation, yield and weight, with a specific feeding programme for first- and second-lactation heifers and cows.

“We used to just flat-rate feed everything and would group the highs and lows, so essentially we could be feeding a 60l cow the same as a cow yielding 28l. The feed rate was 0.34kg/litre but now we have dropped that to 0.29kg/litre and as a result are saving thousands,” says Mr Steele.

Fertility has also improved as a result of monitoring individual cows. The weigh scales, which cows walk over after every milking (three times a day), are linked to the heat-detection system, using pedometers that measure cow activity and inactivity. Mr Steele says when a cow is showing heat, but the weigh scales show she is losing weight, the system will flag up not to serve her.

“We don’t want to serve a cow whose weight is dropping, as she will probably not hold to semen, so we would be wasting money. Now we are getting some cows to hold in calf 30 days after calving and have a conception rate of 42%.”

Mr Steele has also reduced the number of straws used for every pregnancy down from 3.5 straws when a dedicated technician came out daily, to 2.1 straws. “Saving a whole straw is the equivalent of about a £20 saving a cow,” he says.

Mr Steele reckons five to six cows are flagged up a day for various reasons. “Everything we need to know about every individual cow is there right in front of us when she is being milked. If she flags up as having a problem, we can make the decision whether to automatically draft her off for checking.”

Time-saving

Mr Steele also records everything and inputs the data on to the computer. The more that is inputted, the more the system can work for the farmer and the cow. Data inputted includes everything from calving data and number of heats to health data and foot trimming dates.

“The more information I input the more it works for me. Before using this system, when the vet was coming to do a health check, I would have to get all the bits of paper together and from this write a list of cows for him to view and then go and find them. There is now no paper trail and it is fully automated. I simply print off a list and input which cows to sort and it’s done all automatically.”

Mr Steele says the system has really freed up time and is simple to use. “The technology support from both Fullwood and Afifarm also means the system runs smoothly.”

And the reality of just how efficient this system is is shown in the time it takes to milk. “We milk 420 cows and can wash down in two hours with just three people. Essentially we are milking 300 cows an hour. With an automatic backing gate there is little time wasted between batches and most nights I am finished by 5:30pm freeing up time with my family,” says Mr Steele.

However, he says the system doesn’t take away good stockmanship. “It’s not a system that means you are sitting in an office all day wearing a shirt and tie, it is a tool that means we are not making decisions in the dark anymore. This system will hopefully help set us up for the future by making us as efficient as possible.”

The future

And the technology doesn’t stop there. Afifarm has just released a new add-on to the system called Afilab. This can attach to each of the milking units and will record butterfat, protein, cell counts, urea and will test for blood in the milk of every cow at every milking. This will also link to the feed system, allowing more fine-tuning of feed.

“Mr Steele says: “This is taking it to the next level and it is very new technology that I may look at investing in the future. When you think it costs £400 a month to milk record, Afilab would remove the need for that. Plus, it is providing you with real-time information rather than information that is a month old,” he says.

Thomas Steele’s top six farm technologies

1. Mobile phone

2. Automatic weighing and feeding

3. Rotary parlour

4. Lely Juno robot used to push up silage

5. Pedometers

6. Internet

Farm facts

  • • Milks 420 cows
  • • Big focus on efficiency
  • • Uses AfiFarm herd management software
  • • 60-point rotary parlour with automatic backing gate
  • • Milks 300 cows an hour
  • • Gets some cows in calf 30 days after calving
  • • Yields 10,000 litres

More on this topic

Read more about Thomas Steele’s farm and why he won this year’s Dairy Farmer of the Year Award

Sarah Trickett on G+