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Monitoring Dairy Cows for Calving (and Peace of Mind)
September 21st, 2016
Dairy farmers have traditionally depended on direct observation of individual cows to determine the onset of labor and delivery. Unfortunately, 24-hour observation is impractical and time-consuming. To monitor close-up cows and improve calving outcomes, many producers have turned to advanced wireless technology. Benefits of timely and accurate calving detection include:
- More space in maternity pens and minimized animal handling, since cows are moved only when labor is near.
- Diminished need for direct or round-the-clock observation.
- Reduced economic costs from neonatal mortality/morbidity and performance loss in cows.
- Peace of mind as pregnant cows reach the end of gestation.
Monitoring technology can also help reduce problems associated with difficult calving, also called dystocia. Dystocia is a prevalent and costly problem linked to increased calf mortality and illness, reduced fertility and economic losses. Studies have shown that up to 50 percent of first-calf heifers in the United States require intervention from a farmer or veterinarian during labor.1 One study of an 800-head Israeli Holstein herd showed that a difficult first calving reduced the average herd-life by nearly six months.2
Available calving detection technologies include activity and rumination sensors that mount on neck collars, legs or tails. Another option are devices that are inserted intravaginally to measure spikes in body temperature, or activate when the cow’s water breaks. All these devices are designed to wirelessly transmit data and automatically alert producers to the onset of parturition. Some can be used as a standalone solution, or as part of a more robust system that monitors cows for estrus, poor health, lameness and cow comfort problems.
Choosing the right calving detection technology depends on many factors, including farm size, herd composition and labor requirements. Before investing in a calving detection system, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are the sensors simple to attach or insert? Consider time and labor involved in attaching multiple sensors to legs, neck collars or tails. The most user-friendly devices should attach quickly on a restrained animal, without requiring precise positioning.
- How accurate are the alerts? Notifications sent before the cow is truly in labor, or false alarms, can lead to needless interventions and/or complacency for future alerts.
- Will I need to integrate the devices into my existing cow monitoring system? If you are already using activity or rumination monitors for heat detection, check if an upgrade or additional sensor is necessary for calving detection. Remember, the most effective cow monitoring systems measure multiple physiological symptoms, and then correlate the data.
- Will I need a scalable system that can grow with my operation? Being able to add additional sensors onto a system is an important factor for dairy farms planning significant growth.
- Will I want to receive alerts even when I’m away from the farm or maternity pen? Mobile-friendly, cloud-based systems are among the easiest monitoring solutions to implement for farms of all sizes. Some allow remote monitoring of individual animals or the entire herd from virtually any computer or smartphone.
- Will the system allow me to detect prolonged calving in addition to labor?
The last question is particularly important, because while all calving detection systems are designed to notify producers at the onset of labor, most don’t send alerts for cows experiencing dystocia. Recently, the Afimilk AfiAct II monitoring system incorporated an alert specifically for cows in prolonged labor. Notifications are sent in real time from a leg-mounted sensor to a smartphone when calving begins, and again if labor is prolonged. The system also detects other conditions based on activity and resting behavior, including estrus, abortion, cow comfort problems and illness.
Cow monitoring can significantly improve calving outcomes, farm profitability and overall animal health and welfare. Ask your veterinarian about the system that’s best for your dairy operation.
1 A.C. Barrier et al. 2012, Parturition progress and behaviors in dairy cows with calving difficulty. Applied Animal Behavior Science 139 (2012) 209-217.
2 J.I. Weller, E. Ezra. Genetic analysis of calving traits by the multi-train individual animal model. J. Dairy Sci. 2016 Jan:99(1): 427-42.