June 23, 2013

Feeding a growing nation

Kim Morrill Cornell Ag Connection

---- — The dairy industry is an important component of Northern New York’s economy. Every link in the food chain — from the farmer to milk hauler to processors, is dependent on the other for stability and growth. In Northern New York, the number of dairy farms has decreased, the number of cows has decreased, and the human population that the dairy farmers need to feed continues to expand.

While demand for milk is increasing (growing population and yogurt boom), dairy farming profit margins are at a record low. Dairy farmers continue to look at ways to become more efficient as well as take into account consumer demands for food safety, animal welfare and environmental impacts. Precision dairy farming may be one piece of the puzzle to move our dairy farmers into the future.

Precision dairy farming is defined as an information and technology based farm management system to identify, analyze and manage variability within farm management for optimum farm performance, profitability and sustainability. The goals of precision dairy farming are 1) maximize individual animal performance, 2) detect illness early and 3) minimize the use of medication through preventative health measures.

When it comes to dairy cattle, farmers work with the physiology of the cow. They want to prevent activities that could disrupt the metabolic system of the cow. Farmers and their advisers create management protocols that facilitate optimal health of the cow. Prior to making a change to housing, the milking parlor or feed delivery, the farmer and his team of advisers must think about how could this impact the cow? Then ask, will this change help to optimize management practices, environmental conditions, health and reproductive performance and milk production?

Precision dairy farming, like other businesses relies on technology to monitor daily performance of the dairy farm as well as the health status of the cow.

Milk yield, component and electrical conductivity: These measurements are sensitive to changes in animal health status. Milk yield and conductivity changes can be observed five to 10 days before a cow is ill. This alerts the farmers that a cow may not be feeling well, even if she is not showing visible signs of illness. Changes in milk components (fat and protein) alert the farmer to digestive disturbances within the cow that cannot be visually detected.

Walking activity: Just like people, cows have pedometers. A decrease in daily walking activity can be an indicator of digestive disorders or a sore foot.

Radio frequency Identification tags: These can be utilized for identification of animals (traceability) in the milking parlor, at the feed bunk or in the barn.

Some dairies have taken greater steps into precision dairying and have moved towards the use of robots to milk and feed their cattle. This model allows for the animal to choose when it wants to eat or be milked. In Clinton County, we do not have any robotic milking systems but we do have some producers using robotic calf feeders.

In this type of system, calves are grouped with up to 20 “friends” and can drink milk anytime during the day they wish. The farmer can adjust the amount of milk a calf can consume throughout the day, and the computer will alert the farmer if a calf has not had a meal within a set number of hours.

Precision dairy farming technologies can benefit farmers of all sizes and management styles (organic and conventional). Dairy farming is a decision-intensive enterprise on a daily basis. Farmers must rely on a whole farm approach to determine the best options to maintain a profitable system that is accountable to consumers for animal well-being, environmental impacts and quality products.

Dairy farmers cannot make profitable decisions without understanding the impact on the physiology of animals or the environmental impact on the land. Precision dairy farming technologies provide tremendous opportunities for improvements to individual animal management on dairy farms.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Northern New York, in conjunction with the Lake Champlain Basin Program, will be hosting another “Farming in the Basin” twilight meeting focusing on Precision Dairy Farming on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Adirondack Farms in Peru. Farm owner Jon Rulfs will talk about how Adirondack Farm’s feed bunk management, manure management and crop rotations are managed to maximize efficiency and limit environmental impact.

More information can be obtained by contacting the Clinton County Cooperative Extension office at 561-7450 or by email at

Kimberley Morrill, Ph.D., is the Cornell Cooperative Extension regional dairy specialist for St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton and Essex counties. She can be contacted at