5 tips to make technology work on your farm

You can’t talk about the future of dairy dairy farming without including the word technology in the conversation. With labour increasingly hard to find, many farms are looking to add state-of-the-art solutions as a next step.  

Work smarter

The goal of technology on the farm is to make daily tasks simpler, and if an increase in production is not possible, the focus should shift to an increase in production per labour unit. Dairy farms can be difficult to calculate production per labour unit when it is an owner operator farm as many employees participate in farming tasks from field work to livestock management. As the farms grow in size to owner-managed and owner-governed, employees take on more specialized roles and the tasks and the productivity per employee is more clearly defined.

Examples of simplifying tasks on a dairy farm through the use of technology range from something as simple as an automated feed pusher to a much larger capital investment like a robotic milking machine. These examples both remove tasks from the daily workload and can work throughout the day when it is most difficult to find the time, particularly for owner-operated farms. The feed pusher ensures feed is always available and a milking robot allows her to milk on her schedule. But, a key component of the feed pusher is the feed itself. Is the farmer making sure that there is feed available to push? Something as simple as shifting from feeding to an empty bunk to feeding with increased refusals at the bunk was new to the robotic world, and it influences visits to the robot. Producers must be open to why the availability of feed is key when purchasing a feed pusher for a robotic barn. Conventional farms are able to feed in a different way by increasing or decreasing their refusals, depending on how they measure productivity. Feed availability does not influence the number of milkings in the parlor each day in a conventional barn.  

Set expectations

Technology aiming to replace labour provides results with varying success. When the expierience of implementing new technology rises above the expectation, everyone benefits. The results matching up with expectations usually occurs when everyone does their homework. It is each person’s responsibility to do a proper investigation of what the product can do for their farm. Social media, the internet, open houses, farm tours and networking within the dairy community are important for gathering ideas. 

For those that are first into a technology, these people have the most difficult job. Investigating a product that is new to your area brings with it many surprises, and this is typical for all parties invovled. The first users must have the right mindset to deal with the unexpected findings, and both the farm and the dealer need the right attitude and resources to buffer the surprises. The technology supplier also needs to ensure they will provide the resources necessary to work through unexpected findings. As products get a foothold in your area, it is easier to find farms to visit and a dealership wth experience. 

Work with an experienced partner

The key is working with a dealership that has the reputation of listening to your ideas and guiding you with options that match up with your expectations. An experienced dealer can offer valuable advice and can help farmers stay grounded in their expectations of a new product’s potential performance. If what you want to achieve with what you are wanting to buy does not historically match with the dealer’s experience, try understanding why. There is a difference between pushing the limits and driving production or efficiencies and expecting to accomplish the impossible. 

Shift your behaviour

Technology that requires people to change the way they work and use data in new ways is at a higher risk of disappointing some because buying technology, buying change is easy. The difficult part is transitioning and working in new ways with new processes that deliver the results you want. James Clear, author of Atomoic Habits, offers this advice, “Be humble about what you know, be confident about what you can learn.”   

When people are open to what those with experience with the technology advise, they adjust their ways of working and the results should shift from what you were getting to what you want. An example of this is working on a dairy farm with a schedule that suits a conventional parlour farm. When beginning with robotics, the value of the robotic system, beyond ceasing the attachment of cups with manual labour, is to allow cows to milk more often. The challenge is that on paper there are 24 hours in the day, and we can calculate how many milkings are possible and therefore how many cows can milk based on the farm’s goals for individual cow production. What we sometimes do not account for is the behaviour of the people and the cows. A system needs to be developed on the farm to allow cows to be trained and an environment that rewards cows for milking 24 hours of the day, minus the wash times. If the conventional schedule remains in the behaviour of the people in the barn, then the conventional behaviour of the cows is at a high risk of remaining. 

A clear example is a farm with 50 cows per robot not achieving the number of milkings that they expected, which leads to lower total milk production per robot than what was expected. While there is ample time on the robot to achieve the milkings calculated on paper, did the behaviour in the barn change to have those milkings in the afternoons and more importantly between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.? Farmers who do not  accept, learn and develop the processes required to achieve their goals using the new technology may be left disappointed. 

Set yourself up for success

In looking at the many different farms visited, there are happy owners of technology at all different levels of production and output. When I see people who are happy, I see people that are appreciative of the support that they get and they are realistic about what the technology can and should do. When interacting with unhappy people, I often see a lack of ownership for what is realistic and what is not. To be fair, anyone unhappy due to a faulty product or issues with installation, they have a right to be. During the homework phase, the quality of the product and project quality should be assessed and finding businesses that represent the quality of work that you need and are willing to pay for is critical. Short cuts are part of human nature. Be prepared if a short cut leads to dissatisfaction in results. What can be done at that time? Should the results be accepted, or is it possible to work on a plan to fix it?

As the world conitnues to innovate, the solutions of the future will continue to amaze us. Simplicity is key to the success of tomorrow’s new technology with user-friendly interfaces and intuitive operation. If a product does not meet your criteria for performance and support, have an open conversation with the manufacturer’s representation. Understand who will support you, and how that support will work. In the first year of using new technology, is their support included in a program? Will you have to pay for it beyond that? 

Buying new technology can work, and usually it isn’t the technology itself that is so important, it is the network of people supporting its successful operation. Listening to those with experience, developing relationships with trusted partners and learning to work in new ways, is the key to ultimate success.





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Creating habits that stick

Day in and day out, how do you create and stick with the habits that will help you optimize and maximize the performance of your dairy?

In my previous articles, I addressed the idea of change and technology, followed with setting up systems to support your farm’s goals. In this article, I explore the day in and day out of creating habits that will allow you to meet your goals consistently. 


What is a habit?

A habit is defined as a routine or practice performed regularly; an automatic response to a specific situation.

When adding technology, either software or hardware, on your farm, there are two levels of change:

  1. Making sure it works as it should.
  2. Changing how you work to allow it to perform to its potential.

Sometimes this is easy, but most often it has an element of difficulty. When considering adding new technology to your dairy, I recommend speaking with people who recently made a similar switch. Once they are using the new software or hardware for more than a year, they may forget the details from the early months. Even if everything is going well, there was still a time when the change was awkward. The key is minimizing this period and working through it as quickly as possible. .

Getting started

The best way to start new habits is to formulate a plan. Work with your dealer and the company that produces your new technology to help you with a plan that is best for you. A study1 in Great Britain evaluated three groups of people tasked with building better exercise habits over the course of two weeks. The first group was asked to track how often they exercised. The second group was told to track their exercise as well as read material on its benefits. The third group was asked to track how often they exercised, read material on its benefits, and formulate a plan outlining the dates, times and places they were going to exercise. The study found that 91% of the people in the last group exercised at least once per week—double the rate of the other groups.

In formulating your plan to learn and use the new technology, identify someone from the dealership or manufacturer that will sit down with you and discus how you will use it daily, weekly or as it should be used to meet the goals or the reasons for purchasing it.

A plan made possible

Next, make your plan attractive; does it support how you want to work? Long before the first cow is milked by a robot, a robotic dairy operator has a series of decisions to make about managing their


cows. For example:

  • How much labour do I need to meet my expectations?
  • How much labour is available and how much can I afford?
  • How many cows per robot or per pen?
  • How and where will I attend to cows with special needs?
  • Where will I vaccinate, hoof trim and udder singe?
  • Will I sync cows or use other technologies to identify cows in heat?
  • Where will I breed cows?

Cow Health is extremely important in robot systems because we cannot afford to have cows not feeling or walking well. When this happens, it creates a significant increase in time for our daily routines. One of the top three reasons for purchasing robots is reducing labour. When producers must deal with more sickness and lameness in their daily routines, the time savings that was expected can be greatly reduced. . When discussing the daily routines with the dealership and robotic company, understand the features and limitations of your barn design. When barn design is sacrificed due to retrofits or loan restrictions, the expectations for labour need to be realigned.

Making habits easy allows boring details to be done daily. Having the far away dry cows and , close-up cows grouped, according to the recommended space (150 to 200 square feet) for calving cows, reduces bedding and makes the cows feel safer. Ideally, the design of your facility places the pens where daily routines oversee these cows with minimal labour, resulting in optimal care should a cow require your attention.  For herds large enough to have a first lactation group separated from older cows, with animals grouped together for the last three weeks, this will help reduce calving issues and fresh cow issues significantly. Some farms are adapting a calving wall that allows cows to go behind to calve. This mimics their behaviour on pasture where they like to go off on their own to calve. When cows feel safe, their cortisol or stress hormones most likely go down and less issues can result. When your daily chores only include dealing with a normal cow and calf, time is more efficient. When you deal with a calving problem, sick fresh cow or weak calf, your time triples or quadruples. While this example helps with robotic labour efficiency goals, it can apply to any farm system’s goals. 

In the Southern Hemisphere, seasonal calving is more common and there is an onslaught of calvings per day. In this situation it is critical to reduce sickness by working with your veterinarian to ensure that the herd is well vaccinated and not too thin, and your team is well organized for monitoring calvings and ensuring newborn calves are collected and worked with to manage any disease challenges. It is one thing to have sick calves for a few weeks or a month when calving is year round, but to have something happen during seasonal calving can be devastating.

Working out the kinks

When working with your team, focus on how to achieve more with less effort.  In the book Atomic Habits, author James Clear explains two options for how to increase the rate at which water passes through a hose. The first option is to crank up the valve and force more water out. The second option is to simply remove the bend in the hose and let water flow through naturally.

What in your environment is a bend? What is restricting the flow? Since transition cows hold the key to peak milk production and to fertility, focus on what is making it hard to give them more space. What is making it hard for you to keep an eye on them? What is making it hard to have strong calves, which you can then put into your calf system and have a healthy calf that doubles its weight in 60 days? Until you recognize the bend in the hose that is holding you back from doing what needs to be done to achieve your goals, then you should look at what the system can do. If you want something different, then change the system.





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Don’t Just Set Goals, Set Up Systems for Success

Goals are important, but unless the systems on your farm—like technology, animal environment and people—support your goal, it will be very difficult to achieve them. 

What Does Change Involve? 

In my most recent article, I introduced what change could mean for your dairy, asking questions like are you open to change, and are you able to change your thinking? “We have always done it this way” is a common theme when people are considering their future and do not see how or why they need to change. So many elements of our lives are infiltrated with factors that force change upon us, even when we cannot see it.

We have been taught in our leadership and business courses that if you do not set goals, you will not have anything to aspire to. We have also heard, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.” This is still true, but if we only focus on the goal and measuring it, it may still lead to failure.

When implementing change, you have committed to opening your mind to a new or different way of working. This can be difficult for the first few days or even months until a new system is working with a team that is no longer changing people on staff. When the business experiences change, it is hard enough for a committed team to embrace and execute, but if there is a constant change over of people, then it is even more difficult to work out the “kinks.”

The first step to successfully introducing a change is understanding if your farm and team can support it or if your systems need to change for the new technology to work as it should.

Changing On-Farm Systems

System 1: Technology

Parlours and rotaries are still the most popular types of milking equipment used on farms. In the past 10 years, more herd management technology has gone onto farms than in any decade prior. Historically, producers focus on milking as many cows as possible and using simple systems for handling pregnancy diagnosis. The cull list is simply populated with open, low production and late lactation cows.  Conducting DHI measurements once every four to five weeks provided many owners and managers with the tools they needed to manage their herds. Milk meters and herd management software were first introduced in the mid to late 1980s, but the culture of daily data collection for management purposes was slow in uptake for many years. As the age of managing cows for production, health and reproduction has intensified, especially with herd sizes increasing and margins growing tighter, daily data collection has become a necessity.

New systems often introduce new information, while also requiring the use of existing data output. Your protocols for using older equipment may have been successful in the past, but in my work, I often witness an inspiring transformation when people working through the change process begin to see success. In the article, “Efficiency-driving technologies for rotaries and parlors” written by my DeLaval colleagues Kristy Campbell and Patrick Wiltzius for Progressive Dairy, they explain how a farm’s systems and protocols allow the technology to accelerate.

 For example, a holding pen has nothing to do with attaching milking equipment, but how the producer manages the holding pen directly influences how cows arrive to the parlour or rotary, impacting milk harvested per worker or per unit of time. This system therefore needs to support the goals of the business. Having a goal of so many cows per hour or kg/lbs of milk per hour certainly aids business discussions and cash flow, but unless there is a complete system in place to support it, frustration may occur when the dairy falls short of its goal.

System 2: Animal Environment

Barn design is a popular topic of the past 15 years and another system within a dairy operation that can influence success. I remember the first time I saw the concept of the transition cow area presented at the American Association of Bovine Practitioners conference by Dr. Ken Nordlund in 2006. My first question to him was how do we sell this to the bankers? His response was that we show them the results. In the 1990s, engineers and bankers drove the concept of the least square footage per animal in dairy freestall barns. When Dr. Nordlund presented what he had developed in Wisconsin, the concept was optimal square footage to aid cow behaviour and health, which leads to improved production and fertility.

I recently spoke with a nutritionist and farm advisor who shared with me that one of her clients visited a free-flow robotic barn milking 60 cows per robot with minimal fetching.  The robotic prospect commented that there was a lot of “wasted space” in the freestall area. The nutritionist’s response was, “If you think that this is wasted space and choose to build your barn differently, you will need to change your goals. This barn is part of a system that supports this farm’s goals.” Of course, we like to think that we can do things differently, but until we have the experiences to provide the knowledge, find a system that exists and matches your goals. Learn everything about that system and focus on replicating it. Once you have the system and the goals, then you can exploit it and try to do more than what is expected. However, if you build a different barn but want the same goals and find yourself frustrated and utilizing a lot of negative energy every day, it should not be a surprise.  Now you need to explore what this system can support and realign your goals accordingly.

System 3: People

People also play a pivotal role in a dairy’s success. When it comes to implementing new technology, the role of employees working with the technology needs to be clear: Who will work with and use the technology and who will train the people working with the technology? Adult learning on the fly is far from a formal education. People all learn differently, but a common theme is that they learn when they need to learn. From my experience, keeping sessions short is the best way to deliver information. When working with the producer or staff there needs to be clearly defined objectives that address what the person wants to know or needs to know before the new technology arrives. This must continue during installation and after start-up to meet and exceed expectations. 

The Take Home Message

Technology, animals and people form a trifecta that the dairy producer must manage. With support from advisors and technicians, farms can optimize the systems they have built to help them attain their goals. Understanding the system and what it can provide is critical in successful change




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New Technology Beckons Change. Is Your Farm Ready?

Change is all around. You can see it, hear it, feel it. How do you deal with it? In particular, how do you deal with change on your dairy, and what role does technology play in the future of your business?

Change is something you may be dreaming of or you may be dreading. You cannot pick up a magazine or go online without being inundated with ideas of what you can do differently for your dairy business.  Everyone (it seems) around you is making big changes and technology appears to be a part of that. You believe that people are happy with their decisions; they must be as more people are following the lead. How do you know what kind of change is right for your farm’s business model?

Reflect and Analyze

Before making any major decisions for your dairy, what thoughts are going through your head as you read about all that is available for today’s farm enterprise, and not just for your community but globally. You can find out what is happening in any dairy community at the tip of your finger with a smartphone. The accuracy is a topic for another day.

What aspect of change do you like? What appeals to you? Perhaps more importantly, what aspect of staying the same appeals to you. (I believe that this question is not asked enough.) These are difficult questions for each of us and made more challenging by bringing together a group or team. I recognize that dairy farms are businesses, but I have witnessed decisions that do not reflect the best business decision. One common theme we all have is that we like things to work as they should and many of us like it when things are easy, particularly when running a business and managing people and animals. This is easier said than done and regardless of how easy we try to make each days’ work schedule, events happen in people’s lives that can add a layer of complexity. How do we set up the business to absorb the complexities and continue to run the business achieving daily, weekly, annual or seasonal goals? Many of the goals reflect production; production of milk or butterfat including production of feed to produce milk. As the consumer is further from agriculture, it is important to have health and welfare goals for animals. We cannot assume the consumer trusts us; we must proactively promote our care of all farmed animals.

While the care of animals is extremely important, so is the working environment for people, we too must take care of everyone working on the farm. For most of the dairy farm businesses in the world, they are family businesses and I do not believe these worlds are kept separate. They are very much integrated. I believe that if someone is dealing with issues in either world, they are exceptional if they can leave them behind. When looking at change, can the change that is available, allow us to be with family more or allow us to move on and be on our own. While family is important, families do not always work well together. Can change provide the freedom to separate, if that is best for the family well-being and business? 

The Role of Technology

Technology has infiltrated our lives in ways that we could have never imagined. It is here and we are not going back; computer scientists and engineers are determining our future, one code at a time. Who would have thought milking robots would be 25 to 30% of the installed Dutch farms in the Netherlands and 77% of the new installations or retrofits in 2021? 

It is no secret that the Dutch have a significant influence in agriculture and especially in dairy–felt in many regions in the world. In working with Dutch farmers, they influence the regions that they move to. As they like to work efficiently, you see the influence that they bring regarding technology. There are many other farm cultures that reflect this, but the Dutch culture is one that I have experienced repeatedly throughout my travels. In adopting technology, I do find that they do not slow down, they continue to begin their day at a similar time as before adding technology. They look for it to do more with less hired help or to allow them to take hours during the day and divert from previous tasks (labour based) to new ones (data entry, monitoring to support management decisions). For the large-scale farms, technology must be simple to use and maintain. Regardless of the owners and managers of large-scale farms, the technology fits into new routines and cannot take away the efficiencies of existing routines. While all size of farms benefit from efficiencies, large-scale tend to have people in charge of divisions so that each division can focus on a change. The smaller the farm, the owner/manager needs to pick an area that they will focus on, there is only so much that each person can focus on.  All sizes of farms matter, it is appreciating what each size is capable of focusing on that is one difference.


When considering a technology change for your farm or a division of your business, can you talk yourself through as to what that change means to you? When you identify people that are happy with technology can you formulate questions that you would like to ask them? Was it easy to change, and if so why? What were the processes or the people that were involved to make it easy, or what was missing that led to it being difficult and taking longer than you wanted it to?

When evaluating new ideas or products that would be great for your business, are you asking yourself a very important question: am I able to change my thinking to bring that idea or product into my business model? Can I accept what I need to do in order for it to bring the value that I was told it could bring? Does the idea or product come with people who can help me to change my thinking, who can help me to put it into a daily routine? What other technology do I need to adapt to in order to learn and change the hardest part of your life: your thinking.

Supporting Change

The past two years have pushed forward virtual support. While in-person and face-to-face is the rural community’s preferred choice, technology for those of us giving support does allow us to continue. Does the business that you would like to buy the product from or adopt the idea from provide people to review what you are doing and make suggestions? Are they a text or Zoom call away for clarification? So many ideas and products work well when they are supported and small misunderstandings are clarified before they become bigger ones and frustration sets in. 

Much of what we do is still about people. Technology should reduce the number of people in your business; or grow the productivity per labour unit. However, it requires other types of people with skill sets new to us to be a part of our lives. Technicians are key to making sure an idea is implemented and maintained. Support staff that work in the world between technicians and users are more and more critical. Consumables that worked well before in older style equipment, may need to be changed and those supporting consumables must now come with a basic level of knowledge of the new technology.  Sensors providing data on animal behaviour now cross over into the genetics world, the veterinarian’s world and how will everything be communicated so that they understand and support your business.

When investigating, create a list of questions to ask after the typical “how does it work” questions. For example, ask your partner in life or business what you are good at, and what do you dislike doing? Dig in and find out how much of what you don’t like (or are not very good at) is involved, and understand what your options are for getting it done and done well. Will there be a cost for you that your neighbour does not have because she assumes it in her own labour. If you hate computers, software and anything to do with it, who from the company selling the technology will get you set up to work in “your way”. 

The Emotional Cycle of Change

Focus on the change: what is needed to implement it, including support to help you change your thinking? This whole process is called the Emotional Cycle of Change and as you become aware of it, you will see many people follow a pattern as seen in this graph.

In the process if you discover the technology or idea is not for you, it is better to understand this before a significant investment. During stage 2, informed pessimism, you should identify the areas that your system needs support to change or the change is not right for the culture of your system.  When you do implement the new idea or technology, there can be or most likely will be that valley, even if it starts off well, there are typically deviations of it working as it should or as you thought it should. We cannot trust our memories, many people forget about this so don’t ask people about their change after a year or more, many do not remember what it was really like. It is best to ask them during the change or as close to after it as possible. This is not to scare you; this is to allow you the opportunity to make a list of things that you need to do to put systems in place to minimize the Valley of Despair and pull out and work towards the success of your goals. What one person could handle and accept as the normal process of change, may frustrate you to a greater degree. 

Always visit farms that look like yours or farms that you aspire to be like. For example, young families with or without an older generation helping. Farms with custom work versus no custom work. Farms with lots of high school students available while others very few. Farms that focus on high quality forage versus farms that do not have the soil, weather or equipment to achieve the highest quality advisors would like to work with. Farms with someone that has mechanical training or naturally fixes equipment versus a farm that does not have this person. Farms where they made changes because they love cows and want to keep dairy farming versus farms where generally people are not cow-focused and made changes to get out of the barn sooner. All farms have strengths and weaknesses. What is important is that you understand how change will be good for you, your family and your business model.




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