The most exciting new dairy technologies as selected by dairy farmers were on display at this year’s PDPW Business Conference in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, March 16-17.
Cooley walt polo
Editor & Podcast Host / Progressive Dairy

Progressive Dairy hosted these technologies along with PDPW on the Nexus Innovation stage – a live-format presentation that is a cross between a TED Talk and a Shark Tank pitch. Companies with innovations launched in the last year apply for the award, and a panel of dairy producers reviews the applications and votes on the winners based on rating the technology against the following questions: How innovative is the product? How well does it uniquely solve a significant problem for dairies? How much value does this innovation create for dairies?

Here are the five companies selected and recently awarded with a Nexus Innovation Award from among more than a dozen applicants.

Vermicomposting with dairy manure effluent

BioFiltro has developed a worm-powered wastewater system that removes 70% to 95% of the nutrients in liquid manure and binds them as plant-available nutrients in the form of highly valuable soil amendments. The global company has been around in the U.S. since 2013 and is gaining momentum in the dairy industry as the discussion about greenhouse gas emissions from manure handling increases.

“We are a wastewater treatment system. We help clean up water to enable farmers to either reduce their land application area or increase their herd size because their nutrient loading will be less with our system,” says Mai Ann Healey, vice president of sales and marketing for BioFiltro.

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The system usually consists of a deep, above-ground, layered bed of wood chips or wood shavings, then crushed rock and a drainage cell at the base of the system. Liquid manure wastewater is irrigated over and filtered through the wooded material which captures the nutrients and solids from the wastewater. Through gravity, the water percolates through the entire system and eventually drains out to a holding pond. It takes about four hours for water irrigated into the system to travel all the way through the bed and be discharged.

As the worms move throughout the wooded material, they eat and convert the available nutrients and solids into “poop,” creating worm castings – a material that looks like coffee grinds. Healey says worms are tidy creatures and “push their poop to the surface of the bed.” These castings are highly valuable once harvested and in limited supply as a soil amendment. Castings can be harvested by excavating the top of the bed every 18 to 24 months. Additionally, as the system reduces volatile suspended solids and nitrogen from the water, it avoids the long-term storage of untreated water, which in turn avoids the formation of greenhouse gases associated with manure storage.

“Ultimately, the longer you store untreated wastewater in lagoons, you are generating greenhouse gas emissions. As it heats up, an anaerobic lagoon releases greenhouse gases – anywhere from six to nine tons of CO2 equivalent per milking cow,” Healy says. “Treating your liquid waste stream can reduce volatile suspended solids by almost 90 percent.”

Often the cost of a system can be offset by pre-contracted sales of the worm castings from the system and the sale of carbon credits for avoidance of carbon emission formation. These type of carbon credits are usually more valuable than traditional carbon capture credits because they represent a natural, non-combustion solution that avoids the formation of emissions in the first place.

The system can be installed in any climate. The company even has a system operating in Antarctica that treats human wastewater effluent from the research station. The worm beds generate natural heat from decomposition of organic material. As long as the geography where installed doesn’t often receive over a foot of snow at one time, the beds wouldn’t need to be covered. Otherwise, a covered structure over the beds might be recommended.

The required size of the system depends on the volume of liquid effluent a dairy would have available to treat. They system can be installed as a stand-alone system or follow after a digester and treat digested effluent as well. Dairies using the system usually have a system in place to separate out their manure solids and are either bedding with manure solids or using mattresses or waterbeds.

Early adopters have found value in the elimination of odor, creation of additional revenue streams from carbon capture and worm casting sales, and an overall decrease in liquid manure management and hauling costs.

Supplementing cows with rumen-native microbes can increase milk production

Microbes

Native Microbials has patented a feed supplement for cows that is capable of carrying naturally occurring rumen bacteria and rumen fungi into the rumen and significantly increasing milk production.

“When fed to dairy cows daily over the course of their entire lactation, we see cows make 6 to 8 pounds more energy-corrected milk,” says Brooke Anderson, a microbiologist with Native Microbials.

Anderson says most feed supplements claim an increase in milk production, but the company’s product is different from all other products on the market because it’s a microbial solution grown from, and already adapted to, live and perform well in the rumen microbiome.

“We’ve learned how to grow these beneficial microbes up to billions and billions and billions of cells and formulated them so they can be mixed into a TMR,” Anderson says. “Once these microbes are then in your cow, what are they doing? They are going to be your cow’s fiber and starch digesters. The sugars that are being released from all this degradation of carbohydrates are then being fermented into volatile fatty acids, short-chain fatty acids the cow can then take up and use for energy and milk production.”

Cows fed the product not only see an increase in milk production but also an improvement in feed efficiency – 7% on average.

The product works by adding additional populations of these beneficial microbes directly to the rumen microflora. These microbes include Clostridium beijerinckii, Pichia kudriavzevii, Ruminococcus bovis and Butyrivibrio fibrisolvens. They are the species included in the company’s commercial product Galaxis Frontier.

“These microbes that we’ve isolated are rumen-native microorganisms,” Anderson says.

The company grows the beneficial rumen microbes in a lab in the absence of oxygen and then uses a drying process called preservation by vaporization to prepare the billions of colonies of microbial cells for packaging. Once preserved by vaporization, the product looks like a thin Rice Krispie treat. It gets milled into a powder and encapsulated with wax to protect it from air and moisture.

“We can then get it into a cow’s rumen so that it can function and not die before getting there,” Anderson says.

Extensive research went into not only identifying the rumen microbes that are most beneficial for milk production, but the process for preserving them and transferring them to the rumen via a total mixed ration (TMR). The product is added at the feeding rate of 5 grams per cow per day. Practically, that gets added to a TMR by a feeder distributing a small scoop of the product to a bucketload of a larger commodity and then dumping it into the TMR to distribute it throughout the mix.

“We like to describe the rumen microbiome like a metal spring. You’re putting constant pressure on it toward one form with our product. However, the second you remove those pressures, it tends to return very quickly to its original form,” Anderson says. “So we need to feed the product every single day during lactation.”

The company is currently researching the product’s effect on enteric methane emissions.

“We can see that there is a reduction in the microbes that produce methane when fed our product,” Anderson says. “Our next step is to quantify the impact on enteric methane production levels.”

New irrigation unit waters irregularly shaped fields

360 Rain, to water crops near the root of the plant

360 Yield Center’s new 360 Rain unit delivers weekly irrigation to corn or forage crops in irregularly shaped fields. The slow-crawling piece of machinery can make near-90-degree turns and is designed to regularly water up to 160 contiguous acres.

“This is a new tool that lives in your field and drives over the top of every single plant, every single row, every week,” says Dave Murphy, a regional manager with 360 Yield.

Just like other irrigation equipment, 360 Rain is designed to water crop ground where installed from an in-field water hydrant. However, unlike other systems, its maneuverability makes it a candidate to irrigate fields that aren’t perfectly square.

360 Rain, to water crops near the root of the plant

“In the Midwest, we don’t have many fields that are shaped like a beautiful 160-acre square,” Murphy says. “That limits the efficiency of pivot irrigation technology and really limits the amount of places you can economically water with lateral irrigation technology.”

Additionally, the new technology can also dilute in manure wastewater to irrigate crops with manure nutrients in-season. The company says this should help dairy producers manage lagoon fill levels.

The unit comes with a 60-foot boom and drop hoses capable of watering 24 rows at a time at 215 gallons per minute. It moves at less than 1 mph, crawling through the field and laying a water supply draghose behind it. The draghose tethers it to the water source and keeps it from escaping off on its own. On-board GPS and motor-tracking will alert if the unit stalls in mud or gets bumped off course. In either case, it will stop moving if it is off its line. A 23-horsepower diesel engine powers the on-board batteries that operate all the mechanical components of the machine.

“It sips fuel,” Murphy says. “It will run for an hour on a half-gallon of diesel. When you pair it with two 150-gallon saddle fuel tanks, it will run for five-and-a-half weeks continuously in the field without having to refuel.”

The unit uses tractor-generated planter lines to help guide it through the field during the growing season and carefully lay down draghose so that it doesn’t flatten plants as it maneuvers through the field.

“Basically, if you can GPS plant that farmground, we should be able to water that farm. Our technology is not field-shape-dependent,” Murphy says.

In trials the company ran last year, fields irrigated with a 360 Rain unit produced an additional 65 bushels per acre of corn over non-irrigated fields – a 32% improvement.

“Farmers usually keep planting populations more conservative, not knowing what Mother Nature is going to bring them later in the season. If a farmer can guarantee to be able to apply water at the flip of a switch, he’ll be more aggressive at planting,” Murphy says.

New manure system aims to eliminate the need for dairy lagoons

Varcor manure processing system

Natural Prairie Dairy and Sedron Technologies have partnered to create Varcor – a manure processing system that separates manure into distilled water, a dry NPK fertilizer and aqueous ammonia.

“We’ve been searching for the right technology to address the ‘backside’ of the dairy,” says dairyman Donald De Jong, owner of Natural Prairie Dairy. “How can we handle manure better, faster, cheaper? That’s what I wanted to find out.”

De Jong has a Varcor system operating on one of his dairies. He has already seen the possibility to eliminate the need for lagoon storage on dairies.

“I’ve been through polymers, fractionalization, separators. I’ve been through all of it. Nothing really checked all the boxes – no more odor, no more methane production, no more flies, no government funding to afford it, no manure storage – until now.”

Sedron’s new technology uses mechanical vapor recompression as the energy source for the system. According to the company, “The solid and liquid fractions are separated through thermal evaporation, and the resulting vapor is sent to a compressor, where it undergoes mechanical recompression. The compressed vapor is then used as the heat source for the evaporation process.” The steam and its heat are recirculated throughout the system to keep it all running.

Sedron was founded by aerospace engineers in Seattle, Washington. They were challenged by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle the processing of human waste in developing countries. While the science operating the system is complex, the principle that makes it all possible is widely understood – evaporation.

“If you were to take a pot of manure and put it on the stove and turn up the heat, eventually all that would be left are the solids. Everything else would leave through evaporation,” says Stanley Janicki. “That’s how we can guarantee what we can do with manure. There’s no other technology that can do this.”

Inside the machine, the fractions of manure are separated using varying boiling points and a patented distillation process.

One thing De Jong said excites him about the system is the ability to recapture more of his farm’s water and nitrogen. With energy prices and farm inputs heading higher, he plans to be able to reuse his recaptured nitrogen instead of having to purchase fertilizer to replace nitrogen otherwise lost to the air from his lagoon. Also, he hopes to be able to create a closed-loop water system and only have to replace water on his dairy that leaves the farm in milk or animals.

The minimum viable-size farm for the system right now is 3,500 cows. The machine can process up to 90 gallons of manure per minute. It can be complementary to dairies with digesters. De Jong envisions that farms with cows less than the current minimum size could pool their manure together at one site to be able to use the system.

“The design is for it to be plug-and-play so that all the components can be pre-tested, put on a semi-truck and shipped, and then assembled on the farm,” De Jong says. “You don’t have to have a rocket scientist come in and put it together.”

If a producer is skeptical that the capital cost of the system can turn an investment, De Jong challenges producers to first measure what they are currently spending to manage, haul and spread manure from lagoons.

“Measure all the ways you’re spending money on your dairy right now managing manure. I did that. Then if you’re truly honest with yourself, you’ll find you will make more money managing manure with the Varcor,” De Jong says.

Machine vision technology monitors protocol adherence in the parlor

Cattle Care uses machine vision technology

Cattle Care has developed a way to use machine vision technology to monitor employee protocol compliance and observe animal welfare in dairy parlors. The technology takes a video feed from a run-of-the-mill security camera feed sent via a decent internet connection to the cloud for processing. Machine vision then processes the video and highlights any action that deviates from prescribed protocols on the farm or conversely can detect when a routine is done perfectly.

For example, the technology can spot if two or more cows are wiped with the same towel, if workers use manual detaching too often, if a cow is not post-dipped, if workers are on their phone during a milking shift or if workers use aggressive behavior toward cows. The result of the video monitoring after several months of use is usually more milk harvested from cows at milking, higher milk quality, improved parlor efficiency and animal care assurance.

“The biggest ROI that we find on dairies is eliminating manual detaches. You might be losing 3 to 5 pounds of milk for each animal with a manual detach,” says Christian Hoekstra, an implementation engineer with Cattle Care. “A lot of times we see that issue come up on weekends and holidays when guys are trying to get done early.”

Overall, the software monitors for abnormalities in procedure. Short clips of the abnormalities are stored in the software’s portal for managers or owners to view and use for training purposes. The software also has the capability to send a text message to a producer if an egregious action or complete disregard for protocol is detected. In addition to the video clips, the software tallies protocol deviations by shift and reports them in a table format for managers to see how their teams are doing. It does not use facial recognition to track individual deviations per employee.

“When we start looking at this data, we can give a producer a report on what they are doing well, along with things their employees are doing wrong,” Hoekstra says. “It can be overwhelming sometimes when you first start to use the system because there might be a lot of things they’re doing that you don’t know about.”

Retraining employees using the captured video clips and the installation of employee bonus programs to positively reward protocol adherence are the most common next steps for producers who install the system. Dairies who have used the system with success in the parlor have also added employee monitoring to other areas of the dairy, such as the holding pen.

Each dairy owner can customize what actions the software monitors based on their dairy’s protocols.

One of the most frequently asked questions about the system is the equipment required for its use. A producer with a recently installed security camera (five years or less) and an internet connection good enough to stream a YouTube video without any pauses are the only must-haves for the system to work.

“Our system has gone through a lot of data. We have years of data captured and trained to our algorithm. It’s become very accurate,” Hoekstra says. “That builds a lot of trust in what we can detect.” end mark

PHOTO 1: These side-by-side photos show the storage of dairy effluent before entering BioFiltro’s vermicomposting system (left), the system itself (center) and the water after passing through the system and discharged to a holding pond (right) on a dairy in Washington. Courtesy images.

PHOTO 2: Clostridium beijerinckii (far-right) competes against methanogens to redirect rumen metabolism toward volatile fatty acid (VFA) production instead of methane emission. Pichia kudriavzevii (second) synthesizes enzymes that catabolize fiber to create more accessible energy in the rumen. Ruminococcus bovis (first on left) breaks open resistant starches in feed to access energy. Butyrivibrio fibrisolvens (third) biohydrogenates linoleic acids found in forage to vaccenic acid, the major substrate for CLA in milk. These are the rumen microbes found in Native Microbial’s new feed supplement Galaxis Frontier. Courtesy images.

PHOTOS 3 & 4: 360 Rain is designed to water crop ground in irregularly shaped fields with low-pressure irrigation near the root of the plant. Courtesy photos.

PHOTO 5: The Varcor manure processing system separates manure into distilled water, a dry NPK fertilizer and aqueous ammonia. Courtesy photo.

PHOTO 6: Cattle Care uses machine vision technology to monitor employee compliance with milk quality protocols and observe animal welfare in dairy parlors. Courtesy image.

Note: The author is an adviser to, and an investor in, one of the companies mentioned in this article (Cattle Care).

Walt Cooley