Monitoring burping cows may not be everyones idea of a day well spent, but for Victorian dairy farmers Cameron and Ann Hodge knowing how often their cows are ruminating and the status of their fertility through smart cow collars is leading to good outcomes for their business.

Who: Cameron and Ann Hodge
What: 450 cows, 90 per cent Fresian, 10 per cent Jersey
Where: 260 Ha, Cohuna, northern Victoria

“Eighteen months ago we purchased cow collars for heat detection and ruminant monitoring,” explains Cameron. “Cows burp about every thirty minutes and when the cow doesn’t feel very well she doesn’t eat very much and her tummy slows down and these devices pick up on that.”

The collars can then alert Cameron to any unusual change so he can check on an animal to make sure she is OK or treat as required. Although Ann is quick to point out that they haven’t yet taken full advantage of the collars to monitor wellness and purchased the collars primarily as heat detection devices to help them manage fertility.

Higher conception rates

As a cow moves through her fertility cycle she becomes more or less receptive to insemination. Getting the timing right to inseminate her can increase the likelihood she will get pregnant and therefore the amount of time she stays in production.

“The collars collect data the whole time about the idiosyncrasies of individuals,” says Ann. “So as you build up the data you get a very good picture of which cow to join when, and therefore get better results because not all cows are exactly the same.”

Cameron adds, “Basically the collars help us determine when is the best time to inseminate each individual cow, when they are most receptive. We’ve done three mating cycles since we got the collars and it has improved our conception rate by about 20 per cent.”

This is a great outcome for the Hodges. Cameron says that the higher conception rates they are now achieving with artificial insemination has the spin-off benefit of improving the herd’s genetics. By using artificial insemination they can match the genetics of the bull with those that best complement an individual cow. This leads to better outcomes across traits such as conformation (the cow’s physical features), productivity, health, temperament and ‘dairy-ability’.

Cameron estimates that only about one to two per cent of dairy farmers are using smart cow collars.

Business development

Cameron and Ann have been dairying for 18 years and for the last nine, have been members of Dairy Farmers Milk Co-operative. Cameron is also now their Northern Victorian Director. It is their Dairy Farmers Milk Co-operative membership that Cameron attributes their capacity to adopt new technologies such as the collars.

“Dairy Farmers Milk Co-operative suppliers in this region – northern Victoria – have typically enjoyed a one or two cents per litre price advantage over competitors in the last few years,” says Cameron. “Having a greater farm gate income has certainly paved the way for new opportunities to be incorporated into our business.”

According to the Hodges, when Dairy Farmers Milk Co-operative extended their supplier base in the area they chose farmers who were more open to change – because it took a lot to attract farmers away from life-long relationships with their existing milk buyers. But the results for the Hodges have been significant.

Aside from the collars, they have been able to adopt or explore a range of other technologies such as the use of sexed semen to reduce the number of bull calves born; ear tags and an in-shed dairy management program that records every detail of every cow; an automated milking parlour requiring only one person to operate it; establishment of over 15 kilometres of tree belts for shade and environmental benefits; automated teat and milk cup sanitation system (reducing  mastitis by 50-60 per cent); and one that most diary’s now have that is simple but a life-saver – automated drafting gates.

Picture cows backing out of the dairy and shooting off in any direction they pleased and a poor person trying to get the right cows in the right place. Ann puts it simply – “it was terrible”. Cameron has a more comical take.

“At drafting times, on a couple of occasions you would say “blow it” and you’d run after a cow down the laneway with your apron and gumboots flapping and if your tracky dacks were a bit loose of course they would slide down, then you’d be half hobbled,” says Cameron laughing.

But that’s all ancient history now thanks to the automated dairy – making life easier for the Hodges, and calmer and gentler on the cows – everyone wins.

Fair prices linked to innovation

“Most of us [Dairy Farmers Milk Co-operative members] have adopted technology in one form or another and have had the opportunity to take advantage of our situation to incorporate technology on one level or another – it’s really quite surprising,” says Cameron. “The reality is we’ve been paid above the market price for our milk over time and we have been treated fairly.”

Lion – manufacturer of such milk brands as ‘Dairy Farmers’, ‘Dare’ and ‘Pura’ – buys all milk produced by Dairy Farmers Milk Co-operative members. The agreement between the entities ensures a fair price for both buyer and seller is achieved and, importantly, an independent arbitrator can be used if an agreed price cannot be negotiated.

“Lion has offered us noteworthy fixed price contracts both short and long term,” says Cameron. “That’s a very commendable aspect of supplying Lion via Dairy Farmers Milk Co-operative. It’s given us financial stability and opportunities to develop our enterprise.”