Modernizing an Age-Old Profession

May 10, 2018

Being a Tillamook dairy farmer is first and foremost about caring for the cows. When you have healthy cows, you make better milk, which makes delicious dairy products. It’s as simple as that. And while years of practice have helped our farmers develop a natural gift for cow care and an instinct for animals, they're increasingly turning to technology to better monitor their cows and make their days more productive.

Just like the rest of the world, Tillamook dairy farmers use gadgets, programs and apps to make life a little easier. These technologies are improving upon an age-old profession by streamlining daily duties and allowing farmers to spend their time most effectively.

Modernizing dairy farming not only improves the quality of lives of our cows, but also of our farmers. By integrating technology into cow care, our farmers are able to work smarter and address problems faster than ever. “I know we’re doing a better job at managing the cows because we have that extra data,” explains Tillamook farmer-owner, Kurt Mizee. “What that means for us is, not only are we able to manage them better, but we’re able to be preventative.” Good for the cows, good for the farmers.

Tillamook farmer-owner, Wendy Landolt, showing her cows some love.

No two cows are exactly alike, so to help give individualized attention, some of our farmers have given their cows smart collars. These collars act like an extra set of eyes. They observe a cow’s activity and report it to our farmers in real-time, day or night.

...The technology is there when we aren’t at 1 o’clock in the morning… I think it’s important that we still see the cows every day, but the technology helps us do a better job.”

They essentially work the same as a pedometer to track the cows’ daily activity, while some collars can even listen in on a cow’s rumination process. Rumination is when a cow chews her cud to break down plant matter and stimulate digestion. The collars have a microphone that picks up on the cow’s chewing sounds and tracks her chomps per hour. It’s important to have this information, because healthy cows have an average of 400 - 500 chews per hour. Anything less would be an indicator to farmers that something’s not right. That’s when the collar will send information to a desktop computer where software generates reports on each cow.

Farmers can check in on these data reports at any time, but if there’s ever a change in a cow’s baseline behavior like a drop in rumination or anything suggesting she’s close to going into labor, the software sends a “distress alert” notification to the farmers’ smartphone or computer. This way, they can get to her quickly, figure out the problem, and give her the proper treatment. “Sometimes they aren’t feeling well, so you take the temperature, you diagnose what the issue is and then you treat it according to our protocols that we have,” says Tillamook farmer-owner, Jennie Seals. “To me, that system, I just love it. Because you can be so much more efficient, you can focus on where a problem is and get it fixed.”

Not only does modern technology allow farmers to reach a cow in need faster than ever, but it also provides them with a little more flexibility in their own lives. Even when they’re off the farm, farmers can monitor their cows to make sure they’re taken care of. For example, Kurt recalls getting a distress alert that he had a cow calving. “I was able to get ahold of who I needed to reach to make sure they could take care of the cow.” Getting that additional help from the latest tech tools allows farmers to work smarter, which means they can balance their work and family life a little better, while maintaining their high level of cow care.

A few of our cows sporting their high-tech collars.

I know we’re doing a better job at managing the cows because we have that extra data. What that means for us is, not only are we able to manage them better, but we’re able to be preventative.”

With tools that track and communicate crucial aspects of a cow’s well-being in real time, farmers are also able to take preventative measures to keep their cows healthy and get ahead of an illness or injury. For example, if a cow is not taking as many steps as usual, it could be an indication of a sore foot. With the collar software, farmers can detect these changes in health earlier, diagnose, and treat as needed. “As opposed to having to treat a cow, we can assist her with probiotics and vitamins that allow us to stay ahead of it.” Explains Kurt Mizee, “It’s like a person taking [medicine] at the first sign of sickness instead of waiting three days and going to the emergency room for antibiotics.”

Along with monitoring rumination and movement, another great feature of the collars is that they communicate with other tools like robotic milking systems. These machines allow for a cow to voluntarily milk herself as often as she needs to. The collars act as an identifier for every cow that comes into the milking system. This means that, as soon as she walks into the milking area, the robotic milking machine software can take into account a cow’s history before milking her.

While being milked, she’s also enjoying a snack that’s been portioned out based on her dietary needs. Cows that are coming in to get milked more often have a higher energy need and therefore require more feed than cows that are coming to milk fewer times per day. The amount of times a cow needs to be milked and fed is based on her production, and visits can range from two to six times a day.

“To me, that system, I just love it. Because you can be so much more efficient, you can focus on where a problem is and get it fixed.”

Although the human side of farming will never go away, the introduction of modern technology has been embraced as a way to offer the best cow care possible by “improving, honing in pieces that we’ve been doing for the past hundred years,” says Becky Seals. “It’s still very important - we watch the cows every day. But the technology is there when we aren’t at 1 o’clock in the morning… I think it’s important that we still see the cows every day, but the technology helps us do a better job.”

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