With a host of technology now readily available to the modern dairy farmer we take a look at some of the innovations out there.
Whether it is automatic feed pushers, total mixed ration (TMR) monitoring systems, grazing gizmos or rumen boluses, there is a host of technologies which could help farmers better manage cow diets and promote feed efficiencies.
Automated TMR monitoring systems, which tell the mixer operator exactly what to load and when, have the potential to save farmers money and improve feeding consistency and thus cow performance.
These types of system allow different rations to be uploaded to a computer box mounted on the mixer wagon. A visual display then shows which ingredient to add and how much has been put in the wagon. Loading information can then be downloaded and used to track feeding protocols.
Independent nutritionist Martin Attwell has a number of clients using mixer technology and believes there are many benefits, for both farmers and nutritionists.
He says: “As a nutritionist, it means I can change the diet and upload it to the machine remotely. So within 24 hours I can alter the diet. You can also change silage analysis and save it or change feeds.”
One of the main benefits identified on-farm is the potential to avoid over or underfeeding key ingredients. The ability to understand exactly the quantities being fed also enables businesses to get an exact understanding of feed use and calculate costs.
TMR monitoring systems avoid the habit of over or under-mixing. This ensures the ration is mixed the way the nutritionist designed it. This particularly helps deliver the desired forage-to-concentrate ratio, which promotes rumen health. If more concentrate is fed in relation to forage, this could potentially negatively affect rumen health, leading to acidosis and depressed milk constituents.
The data generated is also a useful training aid when discussing when and why rations were not mixed accurately in a given time.
Mr Attwell says: “You can show the feeder wagon driver the report and ask what went wrong on those two days, for example. You can use it as a tool, but you do not want to use it negatively. It can be seen [by staff] as ‘big brother watching them’, but they usually raise their game so they get it right.”
Ultimately, approaching staff sensitively and in a way which suits their individual personalities is a must in order to get buy-in to such technology.
Mr Attwell adds: “It is like any new technology. You give staff a reason why you are using it and teach them how to use it. In this case, it is to make feeding more accurate and to understand exactly what is being fed. It enables you to have a good handle on the forage and feeds used.”
Automatic release gates
Automatic timer release gates could take the hassle factor out of moving stock to a new field or grass break. The release gates include a module which is attached to the gate post to replace the hook eye which a spring gate latches onto. Farmers can then programme them to release at a preset time, perhaps just before milking to encourage cows to start walking to the parlour.
Some farmers choose to put an empty plastic drum on the opposite side of the hook, so cows get an ‘acoustic signal’ to move when the gate pings back.
Could virtual fencing be the future for grass management? The Australians are already one step ahead and pioneering the use of such technology on rangeland systems.
Their system uses animal-mounted collars which send out an electric shock when they get too close to a virtual fence line, which the farmer maps out using a smartphone app. Animals are ‘trained’ to understand when they are approaching a virtual fence by the use of an audio prompt. The system is likely to come to UK at some point in the future.
Prof Mark Rutter of Harper Adams University says: “Although developed for rangeland systems, virtual fencing has the potential to be used for strip grazing in more intensive systems, and could be used in upland systems in the UK.”