Practical study Utrecht University, Wageningen University & Research, Vetvice and Nedap

Sense of sensors in transition management

On a dairy farm, there is certainly no shortage of data. Key performance indicators for milk production and livestock health have come to form an indispensable part of modern-day livestock farming and with the advent of sensors, the flow of data has expanded still further. In a large-scale practical study, Utrecht University, Wageningen University & Research, Vetvice and Nedap are seeking to identify a method that will make it possible to derive practical value from the information provided by sensors. In a series of articles, we will look over their shoulders as they carry out their research. In this edition: Problem cows can already be identified during their non-lactation period.

Top cows in the barn lie more often during the dry period

Cows with high lactation values lie more often during the dry period. In addition, total lying time is longer, as was shown by the practical research Sense of Sensors. The results of the research also confirmed the benefits of the deep litter box.

Lactating cows want to lie down at least 12 hours each day. Previous research has shown that lying down less often results in stress, hoof problems and lower milk production. However, the effect of lying down more or less often during the dry period has not yet been irrefutably demonstrated, according to Jan Hulsen. The coordinator of the practical research Sense of Sensors enthusiastically explains why the researchers wanted to know more about the effect of the duration of lying time. Part 1 of this series showed that problem cows can already be recognized during their non-lactation periods. Conversely, the top producers in the barn may also be identified during the dry period.

Lying time and lactation value

The figure shows the effect of lying time duration on the lactation value. The observations come from 18 Dutch dairy farms included in the research. This involved some 3000 cows in total. The group of cows with a lactation value of 110 or more showed a significantly higher lying time during the dry period than the other animals. After calving, it’s remarkable that precisely these animals lie down less long than the group of cows with a low lactation value.

“It would appear that these cows spend more time eating; they have to get their energy for milk production somewhere. We did find that these cows lie down more frequently. A cow that lies down more frequently produces significantly more than those cows in its herd that lie down less frequently,” says Peter Hut, the program manager for the research.

Evaluating the boxes

The knowledge that lying down a lot and frequently is a positive factor is nothing new in itself. How do the researchers want to use the extra information collected permanently and in real time by the sensors? “Dry cows should lie down and eat. The sensors tell the dairy farmer the degree to which the cows actually do that. It’s a report that allows you to monitor the group’s changes closely. In addition, you are constantly evaluating the dimensions and bedding of the cows’ boxes,” says Hut, referring to a valuable collateral finding from the research. It shows that cows in deep litter boxes lie noticeably longer than cows on mattresses. “We expected this to be the case beforehand, but we now see that this has been proven in practice.”

A minimum of 11 hours of lying down when not lactating

The research shows significant differences in the number of hours that cows lie down when not lactating. According to Hut and Hulsen, the lower limit is 11 hours per cow per day, but they think that the goal should be 12 hours per day. Hulsen: “Some farms do achieve this, but most don’t. It’s often a question of accommodations: the more spacious the box, the longer they lie down. A dry cow needs 1.35m of space (in the width, center-to-center) for lying down.” Hulsen prefers litter boxes to mattresses, but the bedding must be at least 15 cm deep.

Is an investment in sensors too costly for testing accommodations? A cow’s rations vary regularly, but this is different for the stall. According to Hulsen, the benefit of the sensors depends on the extent to which the dairy farmer is willing to take measures. “If a dairy farmer doesn’t want to make any changes, the added value of sensors is limited. However, most of the sensors that dairy farmers purchase to detect heat, also detect eating times and lying times. In that case, the added cost is relative. After eating time, lying time is the most important indicator of production and welfare.”

Dairy farmer John Ruigrok: "Sensors help evaluate adaptations in the barn"

45 minutes additional lying time. These are the solid figures that John Ruigrok got from the sensors that his 130 cows wear. The extra lying time is a direct consequence of changes to the bedding. The dairy farmer from De Heen replaced the rubber mattresses in his barn with deep litter boxes. On average, the cows now lie down for nearly 13 hours each day. As a participant in the practical research Sense of Sensors, he says he’s learning a lot from the sensors. “It’s great being able to advance technology. Not all of the signals can be directly related to a demonstrable problem. A huge amount of data is generated; the challenge is to untangle it and present it clearly to the farmer.”

Ruigrok doesn’t monitor his herd’s lying times every day. According to the farmer, the information collected by the sensors is a good resource for evaluating changes in accommodations, for example. “We recently set the withers bar slightly back because the beds were getting too dirty. We now hope that the larger cows will not lie down less frequently or for fewer hours. If the information from the sensors does indicate that, then we may have to accommodate the heifers in a separate area.”