Archive for Robotic Milking

Calf to CowSignals workshop – Robotics conference

Join Dr. Nico Vreeburg from Vetvice Barn Design as he discusses Calf to CowSignals. Rearing calves into heifers is a major investment in terms of money and labour. Your dual aims are to turn your heifer into a strong, productive dairy cow and to use labour, housing and feed efficiently. If you achieve these aims, you’ll cut the costs of rearing per kilogram of milk. From calf to heifer covers the basics of successful rearing, shows you how to control risks and helps you to structure your work so that each calf automatically receives the best treatment. From calf to heifer is full of sensible tips on how to improve the rearing of calves and yearlings.

About the Presenter

Dr. Nico Vreeburg D.V.M. qualified in 1994 from Utrecht University, Netherlands. From 1994 to 2008 he worked as a private practitioner in veterinary practice De Overlaet, in Oss (NL). This practice focuses on four-legged farm animals and has dedicated itself to preventive herd health management and animal production support, with a team of 12 fulltime veterinarians. In 1998 Nico became a partner. During the following years he more and more dedicated his professional time to dairy farm support and joined the team of Vetvice, as trainer/consultant. Within Vetvice, he participated in the development of the CowSignals® concept and co-founded Vetvice Barn Design. On January 1, 2009, Nico left De Overlaet to join the Vetvice Group as a partner.

At this moment, Nico works works fulltime within the Vetvice Group as a trainer/consultant on barn design, dairy farm management and cow management. Vetvice Barn Design is a leading consultancy on designing dairy barns for cow wellness, labor efficiency and sustainable milk production. Vetvice Future Farming consults and trains dairy farm staff on save and efficient working procedures. Vetvice CowSignals Company trains dairymen and their advisors worldwide, in the areas of CowSignals and preventive management. Vetvice is active in over 30 countries with a team of 6 veterinarians, 2 agricultural engineers and 1 office manager.



Robotic Milking Systems: Breed for Profit Not For Machines

Pick up any dairy magazine or go to any online dairy information site, and you will see numerous ads for milking using robots. In fact, even the ads for sires contain reference to the fact that a sire is Robot Ready as it relates to his daughters being friendly to being milked by a robot. But is it wise to only breed cows to accommodate machinery? Let’s dig deeper when it comes to breeding cows for systems and machines of the future.

Robotic Milking

The first robots were installed in herds of sixty or fewer cows and were an adaption of claw type milking machines. Difficulties were encountered when the machine could not find or attach to the teats or when the milk stimulation was not adequate, and the machine detached before there was milk letdown. Owners routinely complained about cows where the rear teats were too close, and the machine could not determine which rear teat to attach to. Often valuable cows with close or touching rear teats had to be culled from herd breeding programs.

Robot Friendly Sires

A.I. mating and marketing programs adapted and coined the term robot ready for sires whose daughters were more suited to robotic milking. As well after some experience with their robotic milking systems, breeders also removed from their breeding programs sires that produced daughters that had short teats or whose udders were too deep or too shallow to be milked by the robot. Sires, like Planet, who leave close rear teats, short teats and sometimes deeper udders were not used as much as their high TPI or NM$ indexes would warrant. Sires like O Man and Ramos were more desired as they left wider rear teat placement than normal even though the teats cold be somewhat short. Other bloodlines, like Shottle and Goldwyn, did not have problems with robotic milking, as their females had more middle to the quarter teat placement, and teat length was at least average.

Milking Machine Technology Advances

Over the past decade, there have been significant advances in robotic milking technology. The systems remember a cow’s physical configuration and know how to attach successfully. As well machines now exist that do not use the claw cluster principal and therefore are not limited by height or distance. Today’s robotic milking systems not only milk the cows and discard non-saleable milk, but they also collect almost endless amount of data that can be used for cow and herd management and also for breeding and feeding.

If a new milking system is in your future, whether in a single box unit or in a parlor, and you do not make breeding decisions based on show ring type, it may be time for you to reconsider trait emphasised in your breeding program. With milking machine technology advancing quickly and with less than 0.5% of North American dairy cows culled for poor udder conformation, then why continue to insist that your cows need to have show ring udders? Deeper in front, unbalanced side to side, only milking on three quarters or teats not hanging plumb, machines will milk them all.

Breed for Your Own Situation

No two breeders have the same dairy farming scenario or plan. Often genetics is asked to make up for management deficiencies and appropriate priorities are not attached to the traits included in the herd’s breeding program. It is your farm, and you need to decide on the traits and the emphasis allocated to them. If there is more than one trait given the lead emphasis then genetic progress will be significantly reduced. TPI, NM$ or LPI are not a trait and are best used to short list the sires that could be used.

Breed for Profit

For the vast majority of dairy farms, the length of time a cow is productive in the herd has a very significant affect on profit. If there was data captured on the heifer herds and genetic evaluations done using that data then, profit per lifetime could be used in breeding decisions. In most herds increasing the length of productive life by one lactation would reduce herd turnover anywhere from 25% to 50%. Thereby the number of herd replacements and size of the heifer herd could be reduced by 25% to 50%. The resulting cost savings for the dairy enterprise could be from 8% to 16%. That’s huge.

Have a Sire Selection Plan

Consider the following plan when you next purchase semen. Short list the bulls in the gTPI, gLPI or NM$ sire listings to those that are in the top 20 to 30 sires.

Lead Emphasis: Use the index for productive life (PL in USA or HL in Canada) as the lead selection criteria. Those indexes are a combination of factors that determine profit as they are the summation of all things reproductive, health, production, mobility, and conformation.

Secondary Emphasis: The three areas, in order of the importance for breeding, are: production (fat plus protein yield); fertility (FI in USA or DF in Canada); and health (SCS in USA or Mastitis Resistance in Canada)

Useful Information: Traits that can be used to fine tune mating decisions include: Udder Depth (deep udders are detrimental for udder health and cow mobility); Rear Teat Placement (rear teats too close together can create problems for milking); Teat Length (teats too short and too long can both create problem for milking); Milking Speed (slow milking cows lengthen the time to milk a herd); Foot Angle (deep hoofs are associated with less foot infection, less hoof trimming and superior cow mobility); Rear Legs Rear View (cows that walk straighter are more mobile and push the udder out of position to a lesser degree); and Maternal Calving Ease (MCE in USA or DCA in Canada. Bulls’ daughters that give birth easier lead to fewer health problems for both dam and calf, fewer deaths at calving and save on labor costs)

Any other traits are simply chrome for the majority of dairy farmers.

Sire Rankings Using Productive Life

The following tables rank North America sires for productive life (PL in USA and HL in Canada). In developing these lists, only the top ranked sires for gTPI and gLPI were considered.

Table 1 – Top 10 Productive Life (PL) Sires from the Top 30 Daughter Proven gTPI Sires (Dec ’14)

NamePLgTPINM$F+P YieldFert IndexSCSMCEU DepthRTPT LengthFoot AngleRLRV
Wright9.62355631485.32.655.2-0.21 D0.13 C0.48 L0.62-0.33
Petrone7.52361549453.82.685.91.26 S0.93 C0.14 L1.411.5
Denim7.323566158252.715.60.33 S-2.58 W1.95 L1.140.16
Erdman6.92260631913.62.777-0.36 D-0.09 W-0.81 S-2.1-0.55
Shamrock6.72304565663. S2.08 C-3.24 S-0.260.04
Robust6.325047671301. S1.14 C-0.76 S11.72
Sapporo5.92248438434.52.867.70.88 S1.19 C-1.15 S1.060.61
Freddie5.62349533614.62.915.30.71 S-0.20 W0.72 L2.341.83
Dorcy5.5233952771-0.12.798.61.75 S1.43 C1.05 L2.452.27
Epic5.322964495322.886.31.50 S0.37 C0.65 L2.861.57
6.72337571693.42.8260.71 S0.44 C-0.10 S1.050.88

Wright stands out as the clear leader for PL. The sire stack Freddie x Wizard also rings the bell in #3 position. The other sire stack with two on the list (#2 and #10) is Super x AltaBaxter. These ten proven sires produce daughters that remain in herds 202 days longer than the breed average and are sires that on average also produce daughters that are high for fertility, health, production, conformation and maternal calving ease. Robust leads in production but need to be watched for SCS. Shamrock with both close and short rear needs to be correctively mated for those areas.

Table 2 – Top 10 Productive Life (PL) Sires from the Top 30 Genomic gTPI Sires (Dec ’14)

NamePLgTPINM$F+P YieldFert IndexSCSMCEU DepthRTPT LengthFoot AngleRLRV
Motega9.82665790774.42.685.22.83 S1.03 C-1.62 S2.142.44
Charismatic9.128099851521. S0.19C-1.80 S2.672.37
Halbert92702770825.72.624.22.02 S2.39 C-1.01 S0.780.54
Director8.3275988213242.844.71.31 S2.22 C-1.66 S1.090.46
Troy8.32650788963.62.6661.42 S0.62 C02.842.19
Dozer8.226508051072.92.565.81.22 S1.02 C-1.25 S1.571.34
Multiply8.2263577310032.855.82.45 S0.80C-1.01 S3.442.72
Tailor7.92634740933.32.614.71.62 S2.59 C-0.46 S1.40.81
Delta7.827098731322.42.775.51.00 S1.34 C-1.55 S2.261.46
Santano7.826527921114.42.823.70.79 S1.12 C-0.81 S0.610.51
8.426878201083.62.7151.66 S1.33 C-1.12 S1.881.48

Two points stand out when looking at Table 2. Firstly it is expected that the daughters of these sires will stay in herds 257 days longer than average. Even if we regress that number down, as we know genomic indexes are perhaps 10% overestimated, it is still a wow number. The other point of note is the fact all these bulls were sired by genomic sires and in some cases it is a genomic sire on genomic sire. On average, all the indexes are very high but it should be noted that rear teats are indexed to be both close and short. An outstanding group of sires than can be used to increase herd life.

Table 3 – Top 8 Herd Life (HL) Sires from the Top 20 Daughter Proven gLPI Sires (Dec’14)

NameHLgLPIF+P YieldDFMastitisResistDCAU DepthRTPT LengthM SpeedFoot AngleRLRV
Lego11229581171041071073 S9 C10 S97014
AltaRazor1112962139961021092 S5 C3 L10255
Gillsepy1092981134981021022 S5 C097136
Boulder10929121291071011013 S5 C10 L10412
Freddie10928851161121021075 S5 W010748
Dempsey1092856621001071057 C5 C5 S101912
Phoenix10828711381001031034 S7 C9 S9525
AltaCaliber10829019610510410810 S6 W2 L10783
Average10929161161031041055 S3 C1 S10157

These eight sires are all within the top 6% of the Canadian population for Herd Life. Freddie has done an excellent job of improving productive life and appears in both Tables 1 and 3. In Table 3 his daughter fertility stands out at 112. All the sires are rated above average for yield, fertility, and mastitis resistance. Among the eight there are sires that can be used to improve traits where females in a herd may be lacking.

Table 4 – Top 8 Herd Life (HL( Sires from the Top 20 Genomic gLPI Sires (Dec’14)

NameHLgLPIF+P YieldDFMastitisResistDCAU DepthRTPT LengthM SpeedFoot AngleRLRV
Penmanship12135001631131041077 S2 W1 L10797
Rubicon11635961981101011114 S5 C2 S102813
Supershot11635421991081041103 S3 C3 L9876
Brodie11635251901071021073 S3 C3 L9854
Boastful11635001821101021118 S1 C010171
Flattop11634301671071071057 S1 C2 L10278
Kobra11635001581101031098 C5 C3 S1011211
Modesto11534301911071001114 S2 C3 S9767
Average11635031811091031096 C3 C010187

The list of sires in Table 4 are, simply put, outstanding for improving Herd Life. As in Table 2 all these eight bulls are sired by genomic sires. On average, they excel for all traits included in the table. The trait where these sires shine, as compared to the sires in the other tables, is in Feet and Legs. Kobra, Rubicon, and Penmanship are particularly high for feet and legs. The fact that all these sires are rated at 105 or greater for daughter calving ability and at 107 or higher for daughter fertility is very impressive.

Table 5 – Top 5 Productive Life (PL) Sires from the Top 20 Genomic Polled gTPI Sires (Dec’14)

NamePLgTPINM$F+P YieldFert IndexSCSMCEU DepthRTPT LengthFoot AngleRLRV
Layton6.52429611862.32.8261.29 S0.44 C0.26 L0.591.14
Harpoon62281574801.42.776.11.68 S0.79 C-0.86 S0.430.86
Champ5.922824222532.617.13.05 S1.14 C1.71 L0.570.6
Homerun5.323455801000.62.827.40.83 S-0.20 W0.52 L-0.910.53
Gremlin5.32286581961. S0.91 C0.33 L0.070.14
Average5.82325554771.82.786.41.39 S0.62 C0.39 L0.510.65

First off it needs to be said how quickly Holstein polled genetics is improving. All are polled by horned crosses and show how breeders are moving to incorporating polled into their herds. Unfortunately, none of these bulls are PP but still using these sires will leave half their daughters polled and each one of the five has strengths that can match breeders’ needs. Layton stands out a clear leader. He is just now a year old and hopefully will soon have semen available. If production is a breeder’s choice for their first secondary trait, then Homerun is the leader.

Clearly there are many many sires on these lists that will increase the rate of genetic advancement for length of productive life.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Both dairy farming and breeding are changing at an ever increasing pace. Considerable pressure is being placed on on-farm margins with decreased milk prices and increased costs. Ways must be found by breeders to eliminate costs and losses. Breeding cows differently for the future will be required in order for dairy enterprises to be viable and sustainable. Using increased length of productive life as a primary selection tool needs to be part of every breeders plan in breeding for profit.


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The Future of Dairy Cattle Breeding Is In the Data

Over the past few years the management and genetic sides of the dairy cattle industry have been handed a huge data opportunity.  One example comes from Lely who report that their robotic system can capture more than 120 different values per cow per day. Sounds excessive doesn’t it? For some breeders that number is beyond comprehension. However, before offering a final assessment on volume of data, let’s dig deeper. Lely Current Data Collection

Dairy farm operators know very well the challenges resulting from high feed cost and narrow margins. But they do not have the numbers to get down to the exact profit at each individual cow level. Do they breed Bessie back? If so what should she be breed to improve her? Or is she the next cow to be culled based on revenue generated less expenses? The challenge has been that managing Bessie has always been in hindsight and what is needed is real time management of her situation. Add to that the fact that wages and labor laws in many developed countries are causing breeders to rethink the degree of automation to apply to their operations. Many sensors already exist for measuring and monitoring cows and many are in the process of coming to market. It all comes down to having the numbers to manage, breed, feed and farm. There are many management   considerations that discerning breeders should reflect on as they plan for future success in the dairy cattle industry.

Eight Numbers for Better Cow Management Decisions

  • Animal Weight – Ways of capturing a cow’s weight available many more factors can be added to what is known on an individual cow basis. Factors like feed intake, loosing or gaining weight and individual cow profit per day for the past week come quickly to mind.  These sensors also allow for monitoring of negative energy balance determined by body weight changes and milk solid ratios.
  • Rumination – Having a healthy rumen is paramount to having a productive profitable dairy cow. Since it is not possible to determine DMI (Dry Matter Intake) on an individual cow basis, rumen activity sensors are used to endure that a cow’s digestive system is functioning well. The sensors also allow for consistent monitoring of feed delivery to ensure feed truck operators are doing their job.
  • Components / Milk QualityMany on-farm systems can now capture fat %, protein %, lactose %, milking time, SCC, Conductivity and color of the milk at every milking (SCC is not equal to conductivity and color of the milk indicates mastitis alerts as well). These numbers and some of the relationships one to another give important information on both a daily and lactation basis. Knowing about problems immediately is by far the best way to address them. Wouldn’t all breeders like to be able to know about a pending SCC spike and address it immediately?
  • Temperature – is captured as either milk temperature or can be electronically read from a device such as a bolus in the rumen. The milk temperature is taken 2 – 4 times per day and is a start. However having an internal device provides for real time cow management. The obvious use of temperature changes is general cow health throughout lactation in order to detect differences from normal. Knowing a cow’s temperature after calving has been found to be very useful    in getting her off to the right start. New to management tools could be monitoring a cow’s temperature, hour by hour, during her heat period. Breeding at exactly the right time is being studied and preliminary results are showing greatly increased pregnancy rates when body temperature is considered. Think how beneficial it would be to have a 65% conception rate instead of a 35-40% rate.
  • Heat Detection – In addition to the idea, just mentioned, of breeding by temperature during heat, there are many systems working successfully that record cow movement and thus signal to breeders that a cow is more active and should be closely observed for being in heat. Yet another device is one that measures hormone levels signalling an on-coming heat (Read more: Better Decision Making by Using Technology). Just think of the savings in labor, drugs, vet costs, semen, extra days spent in dry pens and days of lower milk production at the end of lactation if conception rates could be 70% or higher in cows and 85% or higher in heifers.
  • Milk Yield Every Milking – On a milking to milking basis nothing is more important than to know if a cow has produced to the expected level. All automated milking systems can do that and so breeders with those systems have a very important tool at their disposal. Cows falling below expectation are highlighted for attention by the herdsman either immediately or on a list that can be reviewed at any time.
  • Listings – Every automated system is capable of generating lists and graphs from the data captured. When a breeder first gets an automated system, they use the lists to find the problems or underperforming cows. However after a time breeders also find the reports to be very beneficial for setting goals for their cows and herd. A list can be as simple as knowing which cows, in a robotic herd, have not been milked. Or are they sick or lame? No matter what, the herdsman has a reason to find the cow and investigate. Breeders not only benefit from knowing what goes on in their own herd but the equipment providers are able to use the data from across herds in establishing benchmarks. And it is not only the breeder that benefits, his veterinarian and feed advisor now have information that they can use to make better recommendations.
  • Heifers The heifer herd is the forgotten part of the dairy herd (Read more: Should you be raising your own heifers?). Automated calf feeding systems are now being used successfully. Many of the devices mentioned above, for cows, can be used for heifers as well. Just think of what the saving would be if age at first calving could be reduced by 3-4 months, $400 saved per heifer raised amounts to $20,000 savings per year in a 100 cow herd.

Numbers to Breed Better Cows

Having better management tools is only 50% of the success equation. The other half is breeding better cows. The data that would separate the best from the rest is a long and growing list.

  •  Milk Yield Every Milking – The most accurate lactation production is when a weight from every milking is known. By having a weight captured at every milking, a genetic index could be calculated for a bull’s daughters peak production and persistency of production. Knowing such details may in fact help breeders determine the performance pattern that they want from their cows.
  • Components / Milk Quality – Here as well, having more observations will increase the accuracy of genetic indexes in order to breed cows that produce the milk that processors and consumers demand.
  • Milking Speed – The current genetic indexes are calculated using breeder assigned subjective rating. Fast, average or slow. Automated milking systems are now capable of capturing milking times. As more herds move to automated systems it will be possible to know if a bull’s daughters take 30 seconds less or 30 second more to milk. Time to milk determines the number of cows per robot or the size of the parlor. Milking speed is not consistent throughout the life of a cow and has variations even in the lactation. More over the robot gives an honest measurement which is not affected by the fear of the cow for the milking appraiser.
  • Adaptability / Temperament – Breeder know that not all cows are equal when it comes to be handled, milked and cared for. Using data from automated systems it will, in the future, be possible to produce genetic ratings for how bull’s daughters work within automated systems, their temperament, and other factors that breeders see as being necessary.
  • Reproduction / Fertility – Currently the data we have on cows, bulls and embryos are stored on many different databases. Bringing that information to a linked data system, studying it and then developing genetic bull rankings could well be a significant development when it comes to increasing the reproductive performance of dairy cattle.
  • Feed Efficiency – One of the most read articles that The Bullvine routinely produces is the one listing sires that will produce the most feed efficient cows (Read more: Feed Efficiency: The Money Saver and 50 Sires that will Produce Feed Efficient Cows ).  Bullvine readers want to have genetic evaluations for feed efficiency. For some Bullvine readers sire rankings cannot come too quickly. Research is currently underway to determine the relationship between feed efficiency and other genetic indexes. However if feed intake data could come from automated on-farm systems it would be a big step forward.
  • Lameness / Mobility – On a herd and industry basis, mobility issues are a big financial drain due to animal cull, lost production and added costs. Breeders know that cows that avoid lameness, that are able to easily get to the feed bunk or pasture and that spend the majority of their time resting, are the kind of cows that make the most profit. With more complete data from automated systems and with perhaps additional sensors it will someday be possible to have genetic indexes for mobility.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The definitive statement, when it comes to information and data on dairy farms, is that we have currently only scratched the surface. Definitely much more data from automated on-farm systems will soon be available for breeders to use to operate their dairy enterprises and to select their sires. Decisions made by dealing with the exceptions or past performance are old concepts. What is needed is more condensed and focused information and data to manage with on a real time basis. More data from automated data capture systems can and will make this a better industry. Let’s welcome in the future.


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Mistyglen Take Two: “Siblings and Robots Inc.”

Each new dairy generation adds a chapter to the “home farm’ story.  Mistyglen Holsteins, a 42 head tie stall herd, was started by Murray and Betty Pettit in Elgin County, near Belmont, Ontario. Today the 265 acre dairy farm is run by their children Suzanne and Tom. The brother sister dairy operation not only continues the Pettit family story, they’ve got it documented as well! Although it isn’t showing on Reality TV or at your local cinema (yet), Mistyglen has had the foresight to capture their story for posterity in YouTube clips and pictures!

mistyglen new

Sibling Makeover at Mistyglen: Responsibility and Review

The move from one generation to another on any farm is something that presents a lot of challenges – personal, logistical and financial.  For the Pettit’s each step was given careful consideration and obviously began long before the two offspring came home after finishing their educations. Suzanne picks up the story, “When we graduated from Ridgetown College in 1999, we began the process of assuming responsibility for day-to-day operations.”

mistyglen old new insideResponsibility and then Review were the first priorities.

“Simply put, we were out of room.  Dry cows were being forced to stay in a small barn with anything from yearlings on up.  Making quota in the summer without swinging cows was difficult on pasture, dealing with the heat and the environment.  After returning from college, we added a high moisture corn Harvestore and a silo for haylage but dry hay/pasture in the summer and corn silage comprised most of our feed.” These changes and others brought them to the same conclusion. “Although we made many changes in feed and management, we had reached the maximum potential of that system.”

From Family Ties to Robots in the Family

It’s one thing to know that change is needed.  It’s another thing entirely to know how to carry it out. The Pettits were thorough. “We looked at everything.  Initially, we thought about expanding the existing tie stall barn.  Taking into account the expense of having to alter our manure management, and the fact we’d still be limited in our feeding options, it didn’t make financial sense to add on to the old barn.  We then considered building a new tie stall and visited several in the area.  Although that was appealing to us for the ability to see and interact personally with the animals, it seemed like we wouldn’t be taking a step forward.  Then we thought about a parlor, but having been involved in tie-stalls all our lives, it wasn’t an attractive option.”  Both Pettits are open about their learning curve. “Robotic milking was something we mocked early on in the process, but as we began exploring and researching, we found it held a lot of positive attributes for our particular situation.”

mistyglen robot 1

Siblings Push the Robotic Button

When it comes to pushing each other`s buttons, Suzanne and Tom have taken it to a whole new non-sibling-rivalry level.  The buttons they push are robotic. “On May 15, 2012, we started milking in a 70 ft by 240 ft, 3-row freestall barn with a DeLaval VMS robot.  It is a free traffic system, with 67 freestalls, and box stall space for dry cows and calving pens.  It is cross ventilated with climate controlling curtains, three 24 foot fans, automated alley scrapers, a hanging brush and a built-in footbath.  The stalls have Legend mats and are covered with chopped straw.  The old tie stall barn has been converted into heifer pens.”

Pettit’s Choice Awards

Before committing to the exact robotic system they would use, Suzanne and Tom did their homework.  “Given our size, we only required a single robot, so Lely and DeLaval were our main options at the time.  We went to Open Houses and then did a tour of several DeLaval units.  We eventually decided on the DeLaval because a) our tie stall equipment had been handled by Norwell Dairy Systems as well and we were very happy with their service, and b) it was possible (at the time) to purchase a used model that was fully upgradable.  The robot met our needs for a number of reasons.  Tom’s wife Kris works full-time and with two young daughters (Madison, 8 and Kadie, 5), he wanted more freedom to attend their activities that inevitably occurred during milking.  We were also intrigued by the prospect of getting more milkings per day and the potential increased production.”

The next generation at Mistyglen showing at Aylmer Fair

The next generation at Mistyglen showing at Aylmer Fair

Mistyglen Gives A Whole New Meaning to “It’s Show Time”

It’s easier than you would think for people interested in the Mistyglen robotic experience to see the “big picture” so to speak. Not only are they using technology to milk their cows they use it to talk about them. “Social media has played an interesting role in our development.” says Suzanne and goes on to explain. “We created a Facebook page mainly to have a place to track the progress of construction of the barn for our own purposes, and found that many people were curious about our plans and the changes we were making.  It’s a great way to interact with other breeders and people who are in the same position we were in a couple years ago, and we’re happy to assist anyone looking for advice or ideas.  We documented the building process in pictures from the ground up so anyone can scroll through our old albums.  While we’re not famous for our cows (yet), we have created a much greater following than we would have anticipated and it’s a fun aspect of the journey.”

Robotics Zoom In on Production

At the end of the day everyone wants to know how robotics actually perform for Mistyglen. Suzanne reports. “Numerically, the changes have been astounding.  Our BCA in May 2012 was 213-202-214 with a standard milk of 32.6 kg. 15 months later, we are now at 246-292-251 with a standard milk of 40.1 kg.  Our pregnancy rate has increased, I believe due to activity monitoring and the consistency in environment and diet.  The cows are generally less stressed milking an average of 2.7 times/day.  During the hottest week of this summer, our cows actually climbed a kg/cow.  With the ventilation and big fans, the heat of summer is now a non-factor.”

mistyglen robot 2

Mistyglen Feed and Feedback

Change is an ongoing phenomenon at Mistyglen says these dairy managers. “The other major change we were able to make was to switch to a TMR.  We now know our cows are getting a much more balanced and consistent feed, which has helped production tremendously.  We added an OCC (online cell counter) to our robot and it is a tool we recommend.  Knowing SCCs after every milking is very useful and allows us to be proactive about mastitis and possible sickness.”

The Sibling Outlook at Mistyglen

Of course, it’s clear that the status quo will never be the option of choice for these two. Suzanne outlines their aspirations.  “Our goal is to eventually reach Master Breeder status.  It’s still a ways off but we are slowly developing some homebred cow families.  We generally breed for type first, preferring cows with good width and depth of rib, strong udder attachments and good mobility with an increasing eye on health traits.” Tom rounds out the current picture. “Very little has changed in our breeding philosophy since making the move.  We pay more attention to Rear Teat Placement and Teat Length, but other than that, criteria remains quite similar.

Mistyglen Jetta Blockbuster and Mistyglen Kweens Throne, the morning they both moved to EX-4E.

Mistyglen Jetta Blockbuster and Mistyglen Kweens Throne, the morning they both moved to EX-4E.

Moo-Vie Stars from Mistyglen

Of course, the real stars of any dairy story are the cows. Suzanne talks of favorites. “Probably the best cow we’ve ever bred is Mistyglen Jetta Blockbuster (EX-92-4E).  Tom Byers made her our first ever Excellent in May 2009.  She was recently raised to 92 points and was the 2nd place mature cow in this year’s Elgin County Breeder’s Cup.  Her sire, Cityview Blockbuster, is a Leduc son of the great Shoremar S Alicia (EX-97) that we used as a young sire.  While he didn’t return to service, he left us with a beautiful foundation cow.  Jetta has daughters by “Dempsey”, “Throne”, “ReDesign” and “Marino”, as well as “Goldwyn” embryos due in the fall.  She is nearing 70000 kgs for lifetime production and is bred back to “Dorcy”.”

Siblings Stick Together to Make a Difference

Youth is on their side and the Pettits keep a balanced eye on the future. “Being 35 and 33, we feel our career is just getting started, but the shift from tie-stalls to robotics, and the growing divide between “commercial” dairymen and “breeders” has been evident over the last 15 years.  We are trying to enjoy the best of both worlds.”. “In the dairy industry, we aspire to the consistency of herds like Quality and Ebyholme (Read more: Quality Holsteins – Well-deserved Congratulations, Quality Cattle Look Good Every Day  and Ebyholme – The End of an Era) To carry out that process, Suzanne and Tom have purchased foundation animals from both these herds with a view to achieving Mistyglen’s goals. “There is still room in this industry for breeding long-lasting, true breeding families that can produce in any environment.”

Pettits See the Future – Precision Management

With their picture- documentary recording their experience of converting to robotics, the Pettits are enthusiastic about the future of this technology. “Robotics is going to continue to expand and be integrated into more milking systems.  Advancements like the Herd Navigator will continue to increase the amount of information available to a producer as farming becomes less and less physically demanding and more about management.” Both Suzanne and Tom enthusiastically encourage others go this route. “If you are considering a robot, talk to as many robotic farmers as you can and get out there and see different barns.  Robots seem to be most effective in new construction, so look carefully at your barn design and ensure it fits your needs now and in the future.  Be aware of the costs of operation and the potential pitfalls.  If you think because you have a robot you can ignore your cows, DO NOT get a robot.  Management is crucial to success with this technology.”

Making Moos, Moves and Movies – Show and Tell!

From camera updates, to regular robotic monitoring the Pettits find that things are clicking right along at Mistyglen. “Jumping into this transition to robotic milking may be our greatest accomplishment (so far) because we believe it will lead us to many of our goals.  It was a great financial risk, but one that is slowly but surely paying off.  We are purchasing quota every month, and we will eventually have this barn at capacity of 55-60 cows.”

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The final cut of Mistyglen story is far in the future for these enthusiastic dairy producers. “There is still much room for improvement in production, and many tweaks to be made to increase feed efficiency and visits to the robot, and breeding goals to accomplish.”  Nevertheless, for Suzanne and Tom Pettit Mistyglen is always ready for, “Lights, camera, action!”

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How Healthy Are Your Cows?

There are  some herds where the temperature is checked on fresh cows twice a day for the first couple of days after calving. But for the rest, how many of us know the temperatures and the borderline sicknesses of animals in our herds?  Should we?

Let’s look at this a little closer.

Lost Dollars

“The economics of animal disease are huge and often unrecognized.”

“A goal of every dairy producer is to have healthy cows that breed back quickly.”

“Early detection of disease reduces the cost of disease to the farm and increases the length of animals’ lives.” These are three quotes from Dr Jeffrey Bewley, a University of Kentucky Professor whose research focus is precision economics.

Consider your own farm. If you are not 100% aware of the health status of every animal on your farm, how can you know the dollars disease is costing you?

There are  numbers reported that say  each mastitis case costs us $350-$400 or that each extra day open for our milking herd costs us $4 – $5 in lost profit.  But do we know anything about our heifer herds?  What does a case of calf pneumonia or scours cost? How much of our labor costs are associated with treating sick animals? And then there are costs to subclinical disease that we do not even know exist (Read more: Dollars and Sense: Herd Health and Reproduction).

The Big Unknown

How many disease incidents get missed on our farms?  Let’s admit it, we do not know.  If we could have an army of herd persons, we might come close to knowing but then our bank balance would be a very large negative number.

So let’s step away from dairy farming for a minute.  Let’s go to our local hospital, where sick people are nursed back to health. The patient is hooked up to machines for constant monitoring so that the Doctors and Nurses can use the numbers to make decisions.  Continuous monitoring.

Wouldn’t it be great to make informed decisions by having numbers provided by continuous animal health monitors on dairy farms??

Enter Precision Dairy Farming

The Bullvine has discussed milking robots (Read more: Robotic Milking: More than just automation it’s a new style of herd management and FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: Passion with a Purpose) but they are just one of many devices that capture continuous observations on our dairy farms.  Besides milk yields robots have information on milking speed, milk temperature and electrical conductivity by each quarter.  Someday soon they may be able to capture fat % and protein%.

Is it any wonder that robot owners tell us that they have never known as much about their cows and managed them so well?

But robots exist beyond the milking herd.  Calves can now be fed robotically.  And other devices are arriving on the market every year to capture more animal performance information.

Another way to consider precision dairy farming is to think in terms of more data to manage with and  make more profit from.

Like to “Know”

However before going further into what equipment is out there to capture on-farm animal data. it is important to know where you’re starting from. What are the biggest health challenges on your farm?

How would you rank the following?

  • heat detection / timing of breeding / cows not showing heats until over seventy days in milk
  • heifers not detected in heat until after fifteen months of age / heifers not calving until 27 months
  • LDAs / milk fever / ketosis
  • lameness followed by loss in production, hoof trimming, medication and milk being discarded
  • difficult calvings followed by retained placentas, metritis,… resulting in cost and delayed conception
  • animals off feed and off on performance
  • calves or heifers with health challenges
  • not able to detect the onset of sickness prior to it becoming a major problem

We all have problems. First we need to identify our problems. Only after that can we plan to manage to not have them.

Systems Available

State-of-the art milking systems will measure drops in yield. Robots will do it by each quarter of the cow’s udder, and in particular, electrical conductivity of the milk at the quarter level during milking.  Parlor systems measure it at the cow level. There is a good association between electrical conductivity, somatic cell count and mastitis.

Tags will measure rumination, or cud chewing, providing an opportunity to react quickly to, say, the onset of illness or disadvantageous feeding changes, at the single-animal and herd level

Another system uses ear tags to take the surface temperature of the inside of the right ear of each transition and fresh cow every five minutes.

A passive rumen bolus system will monitor animal core temperature, which provides information for early disease detection, ovulation detection, heat stress and timing of parturition.

Another ear tag will monitor ear temperature and  head-ear movement to identify potential peripheral shock (cold extremities), which may be particularly useful for early identification of milk fever or for detecting cows moving their head or ears more when they are in heat.

Another technology will monitor lying behavior and activity. Activity monitoring is a comparatively new technology that is gaining in use for monitoring animal health including estruses.

Yes there are new systems continually becoming available but the question is how accurate are they and do their benefits out-weigh their cost? For example, $25 more profit per cows per year from using a device may not be worth it but $200 more profit per cow definitely requires serious consideration of the technology.

Plan for Profit

It is no longer good enough to not know or ignore health (that includes fertility) details on your cows. Past approaches of ‘not sweating the small health stuff’ are not appropriate as profit on today’s dairy farms depends on taking a total package approach. Remember: you need to continually looking for ways to improve; you need to decide on the limiting factors on your farm; you need to prioritize your technological enhancements; you need to capture the information accurately and economically; and you need to manage for profit.


None of this is new information to people who work with dairy cows. We all breathe a sigh of relief when a cow gets through the transition period disease free and we can look forward to a productive lactation and a confirmed pregnancy ahead. Or when a healthy calf in born that grows quickly and enters the milking herd at a young age. Obviously the first line of defence or attack is always a proactive plan to grow and have healthy, disease free, disease resistant profitable cattle. When it comes to profitable dairy cows, raising health is a good thing!


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