Farmbit

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The alarm clock buzzes and feet hit the floor. A ritual of a few overhead stretches, wipes of the eyes and big, exasperated yawns commence before reaching to the bedside table for glasses and a watch. But like many phones, this watch is smart — it’s an activity tracker. 

By the time teeth are brushed, coffee is hot and boots are on, the activity tracker on dairy producer Kevin Morrill’s wrist has already picked up on his steps and heartrate. A few hundred steps in and he is going to check on cows for the first time of the morning, but he’s not going to the barn; he heads to his office to hop on the computer.

 

In just a few clicks, Kevin is logged into a web program that, much like the smart watch on his wrist, tracks the activity levels of his more than 350 milking cows. While there are several technologies like this on the market, this one is called SCR, which is essentially like Fitbit for cows, “but cooler,” according to Dr. Chris Dutton.

“Imagine if my Fitbit also tracked my reproductive patterns and metabolism,” says Chris, a veterinarian, fellow dairy farmer and applications support specialist with Dairy One, an agricultural technology company that is a member of Dairy Farmers of America’s (DFA) farm service family. “These cows are doing unbelievable things: eating 150 pounds of feed, making 100 pounds of milk and drinking 30 gallons of water all day long. These trackers are educating us — allowing them (the cows) to start talking to us, telling us when they’re comfortable.”

The SCR tracker is attached to a cow’s ear tag and picks up on movement through the built-in pedometer. Based on head movement, the tracker senses the cow’s activity level and connects with a reader in the barn to store the data. The Morrills are able to assess this data — from rumination (the way cows digest food) to breeding patterns — to help them better manage their herd.

Fourth-generation Morrill Farm Dairy is run by Kevin, his brothers, Andy and Ryan, his father, Rob, and mom, Sherri, on two New Hampshire locations. In 2012, the Morrills began leasing a farm in Alstead where Kevin lives, along with the milking cows. The rest of the family lives and primarily works in Penacook at the home farm. There, they do the calving, milk fresh cows (new moms) and house dry cows (those not currently producing milk).

With 60 miles separating the two farms, it takes more than an hour and a half to get from point A to point B. The beautiful, winding roads lined with forests of maple trees, which are tapped with sap lines waiting to drip syrup that will be bottled and poured atop mile-high stacks of pancakes, are to thank for this commute.

While the distance makes for some peaceful views and quiet time, it can be tough for those in Penacook to stay connected with the herd in Alstead. Thankfully, keeping the Morrills connected is just one benefit of the SCR trackers.

One of the key parts of herd management is breeding cows to calve, and therefore provide the wholesome milk consumers know and love. Farmers are very insightful when it comes to catching cows in heat by picking up on behavioral cues, but because they’re waiting to see the activity level change, it’s common not to identify cows until 12 to 24 hours after they were initially in heat. This resulted in lower than optimal conception rates on the Morrill farm.

“We didn’t have an employee to do the work, so we had to find something else to help,” Ryan says.

When the brothers got wind of technology that could help them stay connected and improve reproductive cycles via an ear tracker and mobile app, they started their research.

“We were all really involved. Ryan spent a lot of the free time he doesn’t have,” Kevin chuckles, “on researching the financial side of things. Andy took our dad to several farms to show him how this is actually working.”

At $25,000, SCR initially gave the Morrills sticker shock. But looking at the financials more closely, this one-time investment was able to do what a full-time employee at roughly $50,000 a year would do.

“I wasn’t concerned about the technology working, I was concerned about this being seen as a ‘fix all,’” says Rob, who admittedly drug his feet on making the purchase. “I’m old school, so I was hesitant to invest in something we did without technology before.”

After visiting several farms with the system in place and seeing improved cow comfort, as well as the potential return on investment — on both money and time — through use of the trackers, Rob got on board. In September 2017, they installed SCR on their cows in Alstead and haven’t looked back.

 Kevin Morrill

Kevin Morrill

As herdsman, or “the cow guy” deemed by his family, Ryan uses a mobile app to keep tabs on the health of his herd, which he can then communicate to Kevin, and the duo can discuss strategies for care. 

“As soon as we installed SCR here, I wanted it in Penacook,” Ryan says. “I feel more connected with the cows in Alstead than I do the ones that I see and touch on a daily basis.”

Shown by a graph, the lines spike or fall depending on the cow’s baseline. When activity increases and rumination decreases, the brothers know that cow is ready to be bred. Same goes for health: When activity decreases along with rumination, it’s a sign that cow may need medical attention. Even when ice fishing on a nice winter day, Ryan was able to check the app and notice a cow was in heat. With a quick text message, Kevin looped in his workers to breed the cow.

“It’s amazing the small things it picks up on that you don’t,” Kevin says. “I’m guilty. I miss them (cows in heat) all the time, but the computer watches even when I’m sleeping. On health, it will catch a cow sick before she appears to be visually sick.”

Catching sickness early is improving cow health and has reduced the length of veterinarian checks for the Morrills, something that Chris jokes about being good for farmers and their herds, but not his own invoicing system.

Rob was right. It’s not a fix all, but it is improving the farm’s data management and the way everyone communicates. It’s a form of an accountability system — to the cows and to each other. And even though the Morrills have only been utilizing SCR for a few months, they’re already seeing results.

“We are inseminating sooner, which is reducing costs. We’re also treating cows sooner (when needed) and using less and less antibiotics — doing more supportive therapy (fluids and probiotics),” Kevin says. “It’s just helping us do a better job every day to take better care of our herd.”

When the sun sets, things settle down and Kevin’s smart watch goes on the charger for the night, the cows’ trackers keep on gathering data. In the morning, when daylight breaks, Kevin logs in and Ryan checks the app, they’re just as — or even more — connected as they were the day before.