Pioneers in the use of farming technology

AT the Kibbutz Shefayim dairy farm in Israel, visual heat detection would take a team of nine people six or seven hours per day.

But this is Israel's second biggest dairy farm, with 900 milkers, and every cow has a pedometer on its leg which measures how far it walks.

Dairy farmers have always known that cows in heat are more active, and when the Israelis started computerised herd management in the 1980s, they were first to use pedometers to measure how far a cow travels each day.

Computers record the information, and alert the farmer next morning that the cow should be inseminated, when the computer reveals a huge increase in its daily activity. One of the most time-consuming jobs in dairy farming is easily eliminated in this way.

But heat detection is only one of the many jobs done by computer for Israeli farmers.

In most Israeli milking parlours, electronic milk meters automatically gather information on each cow's performance and health, and computers compile the data, and produce attention lists for the herd manager's attention.

Elsewhere on the farm, automatic scales measure cow weights after each milking as they walk from the parlour. Thousands of items of information are organised each day by computers.

At Kibbutz Shefayim, Eli the herdsman needs all the technological help available. One of a total staff of 14 on the farm, he is one of three managers, and is responsible for sick cows, all calvings and calf-care, AI, maintenance and supervision.

For Eli, and the dairy manager and feed manager, one of the first tasks each day is to inspect the action lists on their computer screens which reveal which cows need AI, which cows are in danger from ailments such as ketosis or mastitis.

The alarm is raised when cow performance deviates from the standard measurements which are recorded by the computer. For example, the daily list of cows in heat does not rely on pedometer step readings alone; it also takes into account days in milk when listing "candidates" for breeding.

Computerised feeding systems are also part of the early warning system. The computer not only calculates and dispenses portions of feed for each cow, according to its nutrition needs and milk production potential, it also reports cows that fail to consume the entire allowed portion, which may indicate health problems or heat.

In Israel's high-yielding herds, ketosis is a constant risk. The herd manager is alerted to ketosis risk when computer records indicate irregular weight changes, feed rejection, or milk yield drop; the stage of lactation is also taken into account. The sharp rise in milk conductivity will often be the first warning of udder inflammation.

Mastitis is a major issue in Israel, says Nahum Shpigel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Koret School of Veterinary Medicine. Israel's "metabolic monster" cows, producing up to 60 litres (13 gallons) of milk per day are very prone to udder infections, he says.

When the herdsman gets a mastitis alert, up to 20% of milk yield can be saved by treating on the second day of an infection rather than the third day, just one of the ways in which computerised herd management pays for itself quickly.

For a 200 to 300 cow herd in Israel, computerised herd management pays for itself in two to two-and-a-half years, says Udi Golan, product manager for Afikim, the best known computerised herd management company.

Payback comes in less than two years for bigger farms, up to three-and-a-half years for smaller farms. Even while a herd manager scans his computer for action alerts, automatic separation of cows for treatment can be activated to take more of the footwork out of dairy farming.

Cows can be sorted automatically as they pass though a chute returning from milking, either sent back to their usual pens, or sent in batches for veterinary treatment or insemination.

Another version of computerised cow sorting, designed for larger dairies, enables automatic paint marking of cows according to the treatment needed.

The computer is also at work in the Kibbutz Shefayim milking parlour, where a massive 11 million litres (2.4m gallons) of milk is extracted from its super-herd each year.

Control panels in the parlour indicate which are colostrum cows, sick cows, or antibiotic-treated cows (a rare occurrence on this farm, because all calvers and sick cows are handled in separate facilities).

Milkers are also told how much milk yield to expect each day, and are alerted if the cluster comes off early before the expected yield is delivered.

With online electronic detection of protein and fat content expected to be commercialised within a few years, it is hoped that milk temperature and hormone content can also be monitored in milk meters.

But Israeli dairy farming isn't all about watching computer screens, says Udi Golan of Afikim (one of Israel's top exporters of dairy technology, claiming a 25% share in the world market for computerised dairy herd management).

Proper milking skills are also one of the priorities in a dairy industry where high-yielders need special treatment, to minimise milking time. As far as possible, cows are trained to milk fast by quick cluster attachment before milk letdown slows, and stripping after milking is frowned on.

Another non-technological skill which is encouraged is body scoring, especially in conjunction with care in the dry period seen as the vital rest and recovery period for high yielders.

But technology is fully utilised everywhere you turn in Israeli dairy farming.

At the Volcani research centre, cattle manager Dani ben Gdalia says Israeli dairy farmers want their children to come back and work the farm, even if it means investing in robots which could reduce the farmer's daily workload to a couple of hours in front of the computer.

Nahum Shpigel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Koret School of Veterinary Medicine predicts that milking parlours will disappear from Israel within 10 to 20 years, to be replaced by robotic milking, taking Israel's online style of dairy herd management another step forward.

Simpler technologies are used to combat the heat stress caused by 30 to 40 degree temperatures in the summer, which threaten the dairy industry's impressively even pattern of milk supply from summer to winter.

Fan and water spray cooling systems have enabled many farmers to equalise their summer and winter milk deliveries, and to earn a 25% bonus for summer milk. It is also relatively straightforward, if expensive, to solve the environmental problems which are uppermost in Israeli dairy farmers' minds now.

Following ground water contamination from intensive farming, they have just two years left to avail of government grant aid for waste disposal (one of the few handouts they now get from central government, although water is subsidised).

Now, all effluent must be collected and disposed of; most farmers are opting for drying and composting, but large dairy farms have few options other than expensive mechanical separation and purification of solids and liquids.

For a typical 42 cow barn, a cement sealed composting system for dealing with effluent is likely to cost about €15,500.

But running costs are low; the resulting compost is reckoned to be a sufficiently valuable fertiliser for companies to take it away for free. Nevertheless, it is the cost of looking after the environment that will drive dairy farming from western Europe to eastern Europe, predicts Udi Golan of Afikim.

He sees environmental laws forcing dairying out of the Netherlands and the UK, and the wide open spaces of eastern Europe are the next stop, he says. Milk production will stabilise, he predicts.

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