Happy cows, as ankle bracelets prove, like to relax


CORVALLIS, Ore. — If you want a dairy cow to produce as much milk as possible, make sure she spends enough time each day lying down, being content and at ease. To be happy, she has to be comfortable in her pen or wherever she is.

Wanting to help dairy farmers learn more about this idea to maximize their milk production, Oregon State University has launched research to study the factors influencing dairy cows’ comfort level.

Ankle bracelet

To do this, the Oregon State dairy center is using an Israeli-made ankle bracelet that senses when a cow is lying down by determining the angle of her leg to the ground. When a cow lies down, the blood flow to her udder increases, which produces more milk.

“This device is a way for us to interpret what [the cows] are doing without us being there 24/7 or filming them,” said Aurora Villarroel, an Oregon State Extension veterinarian who is conducting the research.

Offer suggestions. Villarroel and her team attached the device to about 100 cows earlier this year and began gathering baseline data. Now she’s asking dairy farmers what factors they’d like Oregon State to test.

Possible factors

The factors can vary from environmental to nutritional. Researchers may see if straw bedding makes a cow lie down more than sand, or if separating Jerseys from Holsteins, instead of having mixed herds, affects their time on the ground, Villarroel said.

Additional factors might be freestall size, number of cows in a pen, drastic weather changes, what the cows eat, and times of milking, she said.

More milk

Whatever the influencing factors might be, the bottom line is that more time a cow rests equals more milk, according to research.

A study by the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in New York found a positive correlation between rest and milk production by recording how much milk was produced by cows that rested between seven hours and 17 hours a day.

“We predict that for each additional hour of rest, there would be a gain of 3.7 pounds of milk,” said Peter Krawczel, a research assistant at the institute.

He said if a cow normally rests for seven hours a day but increases her rest to eight hours, then her milk production would increase 3.7 pounds that day.

If she rested for nine hours, she would produce 7.4 more pounds that day, he said.

Other functions

Oregon State isn’t just using the ankle bracelets to record cows’ resting habits, though. The device, which is made by SAE Afikim, also works as a pedometer, counting how many steps a cow takes each day. This helps dairies know when a cow is ready to be bred because cows’ activity levels increase when they’re in heat.

Once the cows are in the milking parlor, a sensor transmits the data in their ankle bracelets to a computer where it can be analyzed. Custom reports can then be made for herds and individual cows.

Using pedometers to detect heat in cows isn’t new, but Oregon State is the only facility in the country that is using ones to sense if cows are lying down, said Udi Golan, a products manager for Afikim.

Afikim plans to start selling pedometers with this tilt-detecting sensor in the United States in a few months. Dairy equipment provider DeLaval will distribute them.

Other technology

Also at the open house, Ben Krahn, the manager of the center, explained how he and his crew are using other technology.

A few weeks ago, they began using radio frequency identification tags on the cows’ ears that function as bar codes.

Cow handlers wave a wand over the tags and the cow’s medical record immediately appears on a handheld computer.

Examiners can also input data into the handheld device, which is about the size of a small paperback book.

Having a computer at a cow’s side means that examiners don’t have to run back to an office computer and look up data or possibly make mistakes while jotting it down on a clipboard, said David Nansel, an account manager for Utah-based DHI-Provo, which makes the software.

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