Bolus resolves water intake issues on dairy farm

Water intake is a vital part of milk production – a cow has to drink at least three litres of water to produce one litre of milk. And yet identifying whether cows are drinking enough can be tricky.

However, Devon farmer Steve Middleton has discovered a way of ensuring optimum drinking behaviour with a temperature-monitoring bolus.

See also: Focus on water and space to cut transition headaches

Mr Middleton, who milks 250 cows at Higher Mallocks Farm, Woodbury, Devon, trialled the new bolus in 20 of his spring-calving cows from March last year.

Initially, he expected that the bolus, which constantly measures body temperature and movement, would help to identify sickness, bulling and imminent calving, but he soon discovered it had other benefits.

Steve-Middleton in a shed with his cows

Steve Middleton © Melanie Jenkins

Temperature variations

Because of its location in the reticulum, the smaXtec bolus can pick up extremely small variations in temperature.

It then transmits this to a base station every 10 minutes, which uploads to a cloud system, sending alerts to the farmer’s computer and phone.

As a cow drinks, the temperature in the reticulum decreases, so if a cow is not drinking regularly enough, the bolus sends a warning to the farmer.

On two occasions it has alerted Mr Middleton to inadequate water intake.

The first alert Mr Middleton received was in March, when the devices flagged up that a smaller heifer was having too few drinking cycles each day.

Farm facts

  • 250 cows, mainly Holstein Friesian with some Norwegian Red-crosses, plus youngstock.
  • 220ha tenanted farm: 53ha grazing, 12ha barley and wheat, 61ha silage and remainder permanent pasture.
  • Mainly autumn block-calving from 1 August for 12 weeks. Group of 60 cows still spring block.
  • Average yield 7,500 litres at 4.1% butterfat and 3.2% protein.
  • SmaXtec costs: From £50/bolus, £716 for the software and receivers, £210 for signal boosters.

For further information visit the SmaXtec website or call 01392 873 265.

Trough problems

“On inspection we realised that the drinking trough was too small and situated in the wrong part of the yard, so the heifer was being bullied away from it by older and stronger cows,” he says.

To solve the issue, he moved the trough away from the corner of the yard and increased its size. “The alerts really highlighted the issue of how important it is to have access to water troughs around the yard.”

As the first issue only involved one animal, the effect was quite minimal. However, on the second occasion Mr Middleton found a number of cows were not drinking enough.

“Over the summer I had a new shed put up, in which we were housing the low yielders. I had ordered a new water trough, but it arrived later than expected,” he explains.

The replacement for the trough that was too smal

The replacement for the trough that was too small © Melanie Jenkins

As a result, there was only one trough in the shed and Mr Middleton was being sent alerts every day flagging up too few drinking cycles from the cows with boluses.

“As soon as the new trough was installed, the alerts stopped,” he adds. “Over the few weeks the alerts were going off I think milk yields had been suppressed by a couple of litres per cow a day.”

Bolus alerts

Mr Middleton is using the calving, bulling and heat stress alerts from the boluses, but as they are currently only in his spring calvers, he is also using heat detection stickers.

“The bolus alerts and the stickers do tie in with one another, but the stickers have the disadvantage of having to be replaced after one reaction,” he says. “I would like to think that in the long term I will get boluses in all of the herd so I can jump on health problems quicker and avoid losing any yield.”

The importance of water

Milk yield is closely related to water intake, with reduced drinking leading to low dry matter intakes, reduced milk yields and a loss in body condition.

According to AHDB Dairy, lactating cows need at least 60 litres of water a day, with some high-yielding cattle needing up to 100 litres.

Trough location and size is critical. There should be enough space for at least 10% of the herd to drink at any one time, based on about 70cm of space a cow.

Ensure rapid water flow for refilling, and clean troughs regularly as cows will not drink tainted or dirty water.