80-90% of economic losses due to health-related issues in dairy cows appear in the critical transition period from 2-3 weeks before and until about 100 days after calving. Correct and adequate mineral supplementation in that period is of fundamental importance for challenging this development caused by the expanding use of Total Mixed Rations (TMR) or other standardised feeding and management systems and would improve productivity. This use case involves precision supplementation of dairy cows, using an advanced mineral feeder, cloud-based services and data integration combined with the identification of cows via electronic ear tags - thereby allowing tailored and individual extra mineral supplementation. Minerals and vitamins are important for cows’ immune status, and feed additives can furthermore have wide impacts on environment and climate. The data gathered is displayed in a web application to provide easy access to monitor the feeding habits of individual cows, which may be an early indicator for health problems. As a result, this use case’s dairy management tool significantly contributes to animal welfare and the resource efficiency of farms.
Functionalities for different farm setups
Precision supplementation is implemented on six test farms with a total of 2.700 dairy cows in various European countries, including Denmark, Germany, Lithuania and Latvia.
The different environments enable the researchers to learn from specific challenges that each farm setup brings about. For instance, ownership structure and production systems differed widely, and the test herds have sizes from about 90 to about 1,200 dairy cows of different breeds, including Holstein Friesian, Ayrshire and Jersey. Henning Lyngsø Foged, the Use Case Coordinator, and his team developed the smart farming technology for automated, targeted and precise supplementation of transition cows, with the commercial name “Pitstop+”, because they saw a need of re-thinking dairy cow supplementation to make dairy production better aligned with current policy goals while in the same time benefit the dairy business productivity. Precision supplementation solves the Gordian knot of dairy cow nutrition. Cows can mobilise energy (fat) from body stores in the transition period where they lose about 10% of their weight, and “put it back” / deposit energy in their body in the remaining two thirds of the lactation. However, this is not possible for micro minerals, vitamins and amino acids. The use of total mixed ration (TMR) feeding amplifies the mentioned Gordian know because the cows in that case alone has one source for all its nutritional needs, namely a TMR diet with a fixed relation between energy and proteins, vitamins and minerals.
Impressions from test farm
When we arrived for our visit in Uplengen, Germany, Gerrit, the farmer, appeared very much at ease with the technology. In his particular case, the system runs in ‘Auto mode’ as he separates his transition and closeup dry cows in specific groups.
The Pitstop+ system is in this way administrating some advanced supplements and avoids that the individual cow eats more than its assigned daily dose. However, fully automated does not mean that he is not checking his app and the feeders daily. Upon asking him, he tells us it is out of curiosity and because he feels connected to his animals and responsible for their well-being, rather than concern about the reliability of the technology. In a Danish test farm, on the other hand, all lactating cows are kept in one large group and the system runs in so-called ‘Normal mode’, but it runs anyway automatically because data about the cow numbers and calving dates is synchronised with the official Herd and Animal Register. Cows that - according to the synchronised data combined with system settings - are too far from calving can visit the feeders but are not dosed any supplements. Pitstop+ identify cows through their official ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standardised ID, using electronic ear tags based on the EU’s regulations on cattle identification, and certification by the worldwide ICAR animal recording association. Pitstop+ can also identify cows on basis of collar-mounted transponders using the same ISO standard. The extra investment for an electronic ear tag are in the magnitude of € 1,5 per tag, whereas collar mounted transponders typically cost € 100 per unit, and transponders gives extra labour and need for keeping track of the paring of the official cow ID numbers and the unofficial transponder numbers. Therefore, Henning Lyngsø Foged is confident that use of electronic ear tags will soon become the preferred and common standard for tagging of cattle. It is already a mandatory in several countries and can be used on a voluntary basis by dairy farmers in all countries. Concretely for the Lower Saxony farm, the decision to switch to the use of electronic ear tags was easy, as the farm in that way can use an automatic milk drinking system for calves, skipping the previous practice of using expensive collar-mounted transponders for the calves, which also implied time consumption for switching around the transponders between calves and keeping track of the paring of transponder numbers with official ID’s of the calves.
Increasing productivity and animal welfare
The challenge in feeding dairy cows is that the feed intake is about 20% below needs in the critical transition period, and approximately 10% above in the remaining two thirds of the lactation. Looking at the minerals alone, it means that each cow has an undersupply of 50-70 grams mineral feed supplements every day.
This use case’s solution makes it possible to give individual cows the required type and quantity of extra supplements to ensure a good immune status and thereby optimising health, reproduction and performance of the entire herd.
A supplementation concept that monitors and controls the intake of each individual cow improves the animal health, and healthier cows give more milk and are more fertile. Targeted supplementation in the critical transition period from 2-3 weeks before and until about 100 days after calving improves the immune system of the cow significantly. This reduces the frequency of costly diseases. Test farm results shows averagely 25% less frequency of diseases requiring involvement of a veterinarian, and 15% lower somatic cell counts. A dairy cows' intake of additional supplements via the Pitstop+ feeding system corresponds to the gap between need and supply. In these regards, the solution avoids the redundant intake of mineral and protein supplements which would normally end up in manure and thus needlessly burden the environment. Consequently, the farmer can save at least 10% of the supplements used in the TMR feed. These are some of the conclusions from an extensive analysis of a data set stemming from the six test farms across Europe. Moreover, the researchers found a positive correlation between milk yield and the uptake of extra mineral supplements. This is most likely due to the minerals’ positive influence on the cow’s health, while some specific feed additives in the supplements improves the feed efficiency.
Required veterinarian interventions
TMR mineral supplement costs
All these insights are centralised in the Pitstop+ Manager dashboard which provides a user-friendly overview for the dairy farmer to help them exploit the potential of the system’s functions. The app informs about the consumption of supplements and the precise amount eaten over the last few days or weeks, at herd level as well as for each individual animal. An additional feature is focused on the latter. Any animal of the herd can receive targeted supplements to respond to health-related issues. This can be either done manually by the end-user or automatically if the system is running in auto mode. Through colour codes, animals which did not visit the feeding system can be identified so the farmer can closely inspect the cow and determine the cause to avoid any discomfort or even prevent a disease. In fact, the Pitstop+ system runs by itself as soon as end-users have configured it based on their preferences. It is therefore up to the farmer to what extent they want to use the app as support in their daily farm operations.
Achievements, products & services
Precision supplementation to close the gap between need and supply (of minerals, vitamins and amino acids) of transition cows
Group-in-group supplementation allows optimised dairy nutrient management without costly and laborious physical grouping of cows
User interface enables settings and supervision of each individual transition cows
Practical and economic use of advanced feed additives (for transition dairy cows)