During the process of setting up our herd management software, I spend a lot of time in the pen with herdsmen learning their record-keeping systems. As a standard, we customize our program on the dairy’s computer and on the staff’s mobile devices to their procedures, specific to each dairy farm.
Over the course of many installations, I often find room for optimization in some of the procedures – improvements that can streamline processes and cattle-handling efficiency. Most often, this is because the farm did things one way years ago – but then there is a change here and a change there, and the system still works but isn’t optimized.
This article will seem very basic for those who already employ these methods, but it can still be a good opportunity to rethink the basics and see if you have some tasks that could be redesigned for greater efficiency.
The overall goal of these approaches is to reduce labor costs and minimize physical handling time of cattle. There is no one best system, and they may vary to match the farm’s physical facilities, protocols and stocking density.
When completing tasks on cattle, we want to work methodically through a pen to avoid chasing animals. Remember this phrase: Slow is smooth; smooth is fast. We want to be able to rapidly find the animals, while minimizing the chasing of animals in a pen. Animals running in a pen may get injured and cause manure splatter, which can result in mastitis. There is also increased risk of injury to the person in the pen with the animals.
Rapid animal identification can be accomplished by two primary methods: use of electronic ID scanning and by painting animals. The use of EID can allow for very rapid identification of animals being held in place, either in a parlor or in headlocks.
There are several good brands of electronic ID scanners that range from $400 to $1,500 for a reader that can also Bluetooth-pair to a phone or tablet. When animals are held in place, herd staff can scan an animal and have voice commands audibly telling them what to do with the animal, all within one second. If action for the animal is required, it can be immediately entered on the phone cowside.
The second method of animal identification is painting animals. When animals are painted, they can be readily identified from a distance and while working through a pen. If you have not employed this on your farm before, envision looking for animals with a blue paint mark on them when finding animals to give vaccinations for or for preg checking.
You can work your way through the pen, ignoring all animals that don’t have the paint mark on them. This allows you to easily work through the pen, letting many animals pass by and only herding the animals you need.
Use of headlocks
If there are no headlocks available and only a palpation rail, painting can have additional value, as only painted cows would need to be run through the palpation rail. For those who have headlocks, their use varies depending on the number of headlocks per animal in the pens and how many animals are needed. In two-row barns, often most of the animals can be locked up at the same time.
Locking the whole pen once a week to paint and do other tasks can be readily accomplished. In situations where there are significantly more animals than headlocks, having the animals pre-identified by paint can make it easy to get the right cows put in front and locked up.
Ideally, lock-up times should be limited to 45 minutes. When the right animals are locked and time is not wasted walking and chasing animals through pens, short lock-up times can be the norm.
Another set of markings that can improve handling and sorting of cows, especially in the hospital and fresh pens, is recording vital information on the cow. Painting the fresh date and breeding dates on cows can assist in sorting cows and time spent looking up cows.
Even when you are cowside with a phone to check all the cow’s information, having the fresh date on its back and not having to get its eartag and type it in can be a time-saver.
Other markings that can be useful are painting for antibiotic treatments, lame limbs and animals for herd managers to do health checks on. These markings make it easy to find these animals in pens, and treatment markings can serve as double checks on treated animals.
Using an RFID reader in front paired to a phone in the back where decisions are being made can speed the time and help to prevent misidentification of animals and an incorrect treatment or diagnosis being made.
Combining tasks where possible and practical is another method to reduce the amount of cattle handling. However, when considering combining tasks on individual animals, you have to keep in mind stress related to doing multiple tasks at the same time. Some farms find doing vaccinations at the time of dry-off in a hoof trimming chute to be valuable, while some feel it is unnecessary additional stress and prefer to keep them separated by a few days.
Combining chores in passes through the pen can also be useful, such as doing painting of cows and some vaccinations or doing repro shots and vaccinations at the same time.
Improving the efficacy and efficiency of finding, sorting and handling animals can reduce animal and labor costs while improving protocol compliance. There is tremendous heterogeneity in farm facilities that prevents a single set of best management practices.
The use of electronic ID readers, painting, sort gates, headlocks and reworking task schedules can all be effective methods to improve the efficiency of animal handling. If there have been protocol changes on your farm, or it has been some time since you have reviewed the efficiency of your animal handling, take some time to review and implement some of these strategies.
David Cook is a technical services manager at BoviSync. Email David Cook.