Keeping cows healthy with fitbit technology

Dairy cows wearing heat and health monitoring collars. Image: Jo Holloway, Semex.

Find out how a dairy farm is innovating in the Goulburn Valley to improve health and productivity.

Imagine driving through the Victorian countryside and spotting cows wearing fitbit collars on their necks.

What you’d be seeing is new technology that dairy farmers, like Glenn Fox, are using in Victoria. He has an automated health and heat monitoring system set up to help him improve the health and fertility of 1,300 cows on two properties in Stanhope and Tatura, in the Goulburn Valley, without needing to check them every day.Photograph of Glenn Fox outside amongst cows

Thanks to a Technology Adoption and Innovation Program grant from the Victorian Government and funding from his business - Fox Dairies - Glenn and his farm managers can upgrade hardware and software to track the behaviour of each cow and receive real-time alerts if they are unwell or fertile.

How is this possible? An electronic tag on a cow’s neck uses motion detection to monitor each cow. The collar tracks for signs of when a cow is fertile and how long they eat, ruminate, stand, sleep, walk and is inactive. As part of the set up, antennas in each of the cows’ devices send information to an antenna on the farm, and computer software analyses the data and generates reports on a PC, notebook or mobile phone.

The cow’s neck tag is also matched to an ear tag, which is used by another automation system to identify each cow in the herd.

How does this work in practice?

If a dairy cow is on heat or unwell, she is separated from the herd, or drafted, after milking.

Glenn explains: "When cows walk out in single file, they walk through an air-operated sorting gate. A panel reader reads the tag on a cow’s ear, knows she’s on heat or unwell, swings the gate across and takes the cow into a separate pen, while healthy cows leave in single file."

If the cow is fertile, she will be artificially inseminated with bull semen.

If the cow is unwell, farm staff will review the computer report, check her and decide whether to call a vet.

While it’s early days in the herd management improvement program, Glenn is already seeing positive results.

"Farmers have been busy monitoring which cows are on heat and checking that they are drafted," he says. "What they’re seeing and recording in the paddock is matching what the collars are saying. All of our cows that are on heat are being drafted and extra cows are being picked up, so this system isn’t missing any fertile cows for joining."

There are other benefits too.

The farm manager doesn’t need to monitor cows in the paddock or be present at milking time as the automated software will pick up on heat and unwell cows and sort them correctly.

The dairy farmer can save time during the peak joining periods in February, June and October when fertile cows are artificially inseminated. This amounts to 1-1.5 hours saved each day or 8-10 hours a week. He can also take a day off and be confident that the technology will work in his absence.

From a health monitoring perspective, neck tags and software are allowing farm staff to intervene earlier if cows are eating less than normal or showing signs of lame, mastitis or other illness. They can check and treat cows earlier, reduce medications, vet and medical costs, increase revenue and improve the health and productivity of the herd.

Glenn, who has been farming for 30 years and running dairy farms for 12 years, is optimistic about the future.

"The collars give us the opportunity to value-add our offspring by improving timing when cows are artificially inseminated, so there will be a high percentage of cows conceiving on their first cycle," he says. It also give us confidence to use better quality semen as we will have higher conception rates.

"We will also be able to improve the genetics of our herd."

For more information about how the Victorian Government is supporting innovators here and taking Victorian innovation to the world, visit Innovation Victoria - Our agenda.