The pitchfork and the milking bucket have been placed in the corner. Digitalization has made its way into one of the oldest and most traditional of our occupations – dairy farming.
As early as in the 1970s, Norwegian farmers started to collect data from their farms and registered it in the Norwegian Cattle Health Recording System (NCHRS). This is owned and operated by TINE SA, a farmer owned cooperative and the largest dairy company in Norway. With the NCHRS we have historical data informing us of the health and production of every single Norwegian dairy cow and its progeny.
This information has formed the basis for the breeding program of the Norwegian Red, a dairy cow with excellent health, good fertility and high milk yields and meat production. Norway has been a pioneer in the field of breeding cows with diverse traits based on detailed phenotypic records obtained from NCHRS.
New paradigm shift in the dairy farms
We are now facing a paradigm shift in milk production.
In the future, new knowledge based on recent technological development will provide more detailed information about the status of each individual animal. This will enable us to follow the animals on a "minute-by-minute" basis as we get more real-time surveillance of the cows’ life.
Data from the dairy farms can be used in further research into important themes such as animal welfare, herd health management, climate emissions and the circular economy.
"Going forward, I'm sure we'll be seeing more real-time sensor information from the dairy farms. Interpretation and utilisation of the data from the various systems will form the basis for decision support tools for the individual dairy farmer," says Gunnar Dalen, Veterinarian and Senior Research Fellow in Veterinary medicine at Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Norwegian University of Life Sciences and TINE.
Robot that gives advice
Future sensor technology can provide the farmer with information regarding what is happening under the surface in the pen, and can consequently nip any problems in the bud.
"The machine will be able to alert the farmer that a particular cow requires attention before it has become seriously ill. The alert may be in the form of "this animal requires the attention of a human" at an early stage of disease development," continues Dalen.
Already available sensors record information about how much the cow moves during a day and what its metabolism is. The technology suggests to the farmer what might be going on in the pen with e.g. one cow that is lame or if another one is sick. The system also informs the farmer when the cows are in oestrus and ready for mating, or when the animal's health deviates from the norm.
Furthermore, data analyses provide the basis for economically relevant decisions concerning the herd that the farmer and the veterinarian can set as common goals and work towards.
"Future systems will be able to predict what will happen with the health conditions and production levels of the herd, based on the decisions taken," Dalen says.
"A robot shall never evaluate the necessity of antibiotic treatment of a cow, but should be able to warn about abnormal values that the farmer must consider before making a decision about whether or not to call the veterinarian to treat the animal.
Research can put such huge amount of data into a system. With all the biological data we eventually access, we will be able to develop systems that provide us with more facts about what is best for the individual animal. This will allow for optimal treatment of individual cows within the standardized herd health management programs.
Automatic feeding and milking
On the dairy farm, human hands are gradually replaced with milking robots. In Norway, every third litre of milk runs through a milking robot. Researchers believe that half of the Norwegian cows will be milked by an automatic milking system in four to five years from now.
There is no doubt that there is a high number of benefits thanks to technological advances in modern dairy production, and the Norwegian dairy farmers are at the forefront when it comes to adopting new technology.
Most of the sensor systems currently used are based on research with a sensitivity level of 95% certainty.
"This is very good, but it also implies that the system can miss out on 1 out of every 20 cows, those that are different,” says Dalen.
Technology can never replace the human touch
"There is consensus regarding the diagnostic test properties of sensor systems in dairy farming that they should have a sensitivity of at least 80% before it may be a worthwhile investment, whilst remaining aware that several abnormal conditions may not be detected by the sensors alone. The robots cannot demonstrate empathy in the same way as we humans can. The goal is not to replace the farmer, but rather to help him/her make the right decisions at the right time," emphasises Dalen.
The development towards a "technofarm", where the dairy farmer is free from a number of manual tasks, is used by many as an argument for fewer and bigger farms
Gunnar Dalen does not agree with this argument.
"It has been argued that new technology will afford the farmer more time, and thus allow him or her to keep more animals. However, things are not as easy as that. The more animals a farmer has, the more time he should spend with them. More animals implies more work and greater responsibility. Increasing herd size can have major consequences when something goes wrong, for example if disease breaks out in the herd," he says, and continues:
"The most important changes we have seen over time are that many heavy physical tasks on the farm have been replaced with machines. The farmer still spends just as much time on the farm, but doing other tasks."
Is there a limit for how efficient a cow can be?
"A lot of research has been carried out focusing on the efficiency of dairy cows. A healthy cow is the most efficient cow, and the one that gives the highest economic returns for the dairy farmer. If the cow gets sick, the milk production is reduced, and it seldom returns to its previous level.
We do not know for certain the limit for optimal efficiency, but we do know that Norwegian cows produce on average around 7 800 litres of milk annually, and that figure has been increasing over a period of many years," says Dalen.
The milk yield and slaughter weight depend on several factors. The fodder is essential as it is converted into milk. Currently 85% of the fodder for Norwegian cows is of Norwegian origin.
Automated feeding systems were introduced into Norwegian dairy farms many years ago, and these can provide information about how much silage and grain each cow consumes. At the same time research on the cows' flatulence and belching is ongoing. Combined, this will provide us with better data on management of production and emissions from dairy production, and what needs to be done to produce meat and milk in a more environmentally-friendly manner than today.
"The goal has to be to find the right production level for each single animal - not just the maximum possible amount. I am convinced that the technological development will provide significant opportunities for improvement, both for the animals, man and for the environment," Dalen concludes.
"Robot technology gives both the cows and the dairy farmer greater freedom and a simpler everyday life."