Have you ever visited a nature park and climbed to the top of a tall observation tower? Finding your way through the woods is completely different after gaining an overview from such a position compared to just standing on the ground.
How we observe cow behavior at the feedbunk can also really make a difference in what we see. We can walk the feed alleys and look at the many reports generated by advancing technology, such as activity, rumination and feed tracking systems.
From these vantage points, we see the current moment and end results. If we expand our view – similar to the observation tower that overlooks a wide area – we can reap a lot of rewards in improving behavior at the feedbunk.
The tools we use
We could design complex systems to get this view, but a fairly simple technology often found in the woods can be one of the most effective ways to obtain the information we want.
Trail cameras or time-lapse video cameras are often used to gather pictures at set moments in time. Some are set up to collect a picture every 30 minutes, while others are triggered by any motion that passes by.
These pictures inform us of activity that occurs while we are not there and – maybe as importantly – the activity we don’t see while we are there. We are often better able to focus on these images compared to a long, continuous video feed from more advanced technology. Time-lapse cameras have also gained popularity in the last few years as ways to make observations in barns with limited Wi-Fi or cellular capability.
I have set up several cameras in barns, and the images always reveal interesting aspects of what occurs around the feedbunk. Sitting down with a feed team to view a 15-minute video of what happened over the last week or two is often enlightening for the entire team.
The video may bring to light some improvements that are needed or provide confidence in results from an earlier improvement. Almost every time, the video shows us a lot more goes on in the feed alley and affects cow behavior than we ever imagined.
The things we see
Cows are creatures of habit and benefit from consistent actions every day. Trail cameras can help us discover things that will improve consistency. This includes not only the correct ingredients loaded into the TMR mixer each day but also the timing of the feed clean-up and delivery, when and how feed is pushed up, cow flow to and from the parlor, pen activities and other barn traffic.
We often set up a feedbunk observation period because we want to show “empty bunk syndrome.” If performed thoroughly, these observations will help us understand what previous activities led to the empty bunk.
An eye-opening experience
One of my first camera projects was a simple scenario in which the farm would commonly joke the weekend feeder helped the farm get more milk than the regular feeder. We reviewed reports from the TMR software, but we couldn’t see much difference in how the mixes were loaded and the time they were delivered.
We always left the conversation amused but with no answers. At a farm meeting, we reviewed some time-lapsed video of cows using the stalls in a pen, and that made us think it would be interesting to focus on what happens at the feedbunk.
We picked out an ideal setting for the camera that let us view the pre-fresh, post-fresh and a high group of milk cows with one camera angle. This location also let us set the motion detection features on the camera to only record the movement in the feed alley in addition to a picture every 20 minutes.
We had a lot to learn with this early time-lapse camera project. For starters, we had to keep from feeling overwhelmed with the 3,000-plus images and how to focus on specific points that occurred in the pictures. Yes, the same cows tend to find the same places in the feedbunk each day but, in terms of overall bunk activity, that’s not really that important.
The images became much more effective when we turned them into a simple 20-minute video and jotted down notes about the amount of refusal present, the amount of time a pen of cows went to the parlor prior to the first feeding, the time the cows came back, when feed clean-up occurred, when the first feed was delivered, feed push-up times and notes of how the feedbunk would look throughout the day between feed push-ups.
We also learned employees did not understand the value of certain feed push-ups. On this farm, the night crew on staff Thursday through Sunday would always complete the 10:30 p.m. feed push-up, whereas the Monday-through-Wednesday crew missed some 10:30 p.m. feed push-ups.
With the shift starting on Thursday, the manger was always empty on Friday morning, and intakes would get bumped up. On Saturday, the manger would look good but, by Sunday, some excess feed was left. The regular feeder, who came in on Monday, would see the amount of refusals was higher and reduce intakes.
Monday evening’s feed pusher would miss the 10:30 p.m. push-up and help make it look like the intakes were spot on for Tuesday morning. But intakes were inconsistent and lower overall, which led to days with empty feedbunks and lower milk production.
In this instance, we decided to show the video at an employee meeting. We also had a separate report that explained the importance of each action, not just for the cows but also to help the entire dairy team function.
As the 10:30 p.m. feed push-up improved, we have routinely repeated the processes in different areas of the farm and continued to focus on the effectiveness of each activity. Some activities have been added or changed, while others have been discontinued to make the best use of valuable time.
New vantage points on your dairy
This story is just one example of how a different vantage point can make a difference in evaluating performance. Farms have adjusted feeding times, push-up times and push-up frequency. They have also viewed sorting and cow displacements – and realized that actions they thought were normal were not.
The learning opportunities are not all negative. Many farms also found areas that made them very proud of their teams and facilities.
Time-lapse cameras can help us focus on a bigger picture of behavior at the feedbunk than we typically can observe with a single walk down the feed alley. The observation is definitely like trying to find your way out of a large forest after climbing to the top of an observation tower; it’s easier to navigate when you see the entire forest instead of just a few trees.
PHOTO: Trail cameras, or time-lapse video cameras, can be used inside of pens to capture activity at the feedbunk. Photo provided by Jon Rasmussen.
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