Farmers use FitBit-style technology to monitor cow health

This collar works much like, although more advanced than, a FitBit.

This collar works much like, although more advanced than, a FitBit.

Long before FitBits were all the rage among those looking to get and stay fit, dairy farmers were relying on similar technology to keep them abreast of their cows’ health. And Lilley Farms waaaay up in the County, between Canada and Baxter State Park in Smyrna, was one of the first to start using it. It is now common place on dairy farms and makes it easier for farmers to monitor the health of each individual cow.

lilley computers

Perry Lilley explains all the data he is provided with to keep track of his cows' health.

Perry Lilley explains all the data he is provided with to keep track of his cows’ health.

A collar around the cow’s neck transmits data to computers on the farm through various readers (like one over the watering tank). A farmer can see how many times a cow chews her cud, if her milk production stays at the same rate, and how much she is moving around. These are all health indicators and can help farmers to be much more proactive in dealing with any possible health issues. If a cow’s numbers are off from the normal range, the dairy farmer is alerted.

lilley box

A monitor outside the heifer barn at Lilley Farms downloads information from tags every time an animal walks under an eye placed over the watering tank.

Chewing her cud is one of the most important parts of a cow’s daily life. She is a ruminant, which means she has a fascinating and complex digestive system that allows her to eat almost anything and turn it into energy and milk. In order to do that, she must swallow and then regurgitate her food, chewing it over and over so that it is broken down enough to be digested. If a cow is not chewing her cud, it’s a red flag that something is wrong and she’s not feeling well.

lilley cows eating

A large Holstein who produces 80 to 100 pounds of milk a day is also taking in nearly that much food every day. Much of her time that she does not spend eating, she will spend chewing her cud (about 6 to 8 hours a day), which is an important component of her digestion. The collars on these cows are equipped with technology that counts how many times she chews her cud among other things.

People have spent a lot of time (and money) researching dairy cows, and dairy farmers use that information to make sure their cows are as healthy and happy as possible. Someone even took the time to count how many times a cow chews on her cud – about 30,000 times a day.

Research has also shown how much a cow should move around on a daily basis. If she’s not moving enough it might mean she is sick or has a sore hoof and should be checked. If she’s really active and moving around, she’s probably in heat and ready to be bred.

lilley cows

Cows lie down for nearly 14 hours a day (but actually only sleep about 30 minutes), though not continuously. They are up and down several times a day. If #405 (for example) does not move around as much as she should, farmer Perry Lilley will be notified on his computer so that he can check on her and make sure she isn’t sick or has a sore hoof.

Before this technology, farmers had to rely on their own observations and a lot of guess work. Now, they can catch a problem much earlier. If a cow is showing signs that she’s sick, catching it earlier means she can be taken care of before a problem gets more serious or fatal. Often, less drugs and antibiotics are needed. Farmers and veterinarians can use the data to tell if a cow is responding to treatment sooner rather than waiting to see if one thing works before trying another and then another.

Calves are group housed at Lilley Farms and are fed with a robotic feeder. The calves can have milk whenever they want until they reach their daily limit. This ensures they are getting enough without overeating and making themselves sick. It can also help to wean them, cutting back on the milk as they eat more hay and grain.

Calves are group-housed at Lilley Farms and are fed with a robotic feeder. The calves can have milk whenever they want until they reach their daily limit. This ensures they are getting enough without overeating and making themselves sick. It can also help to wean them, cutting back on the milk as they eat more hay and grain.

lilley calf feeder

Calf feeders like this are used in group-housing rather than bottles and buckets when calves are housed individually.

Similar technology is also used with calves and robotic feeders. Many dairy farms, like Lilley Farms, use group-housing for their calves. Making sure each calf gets enough to eat and not too much would be difficult (or impossible) to do without the feeders. The calves aren’t fed twice a day on a schedule, they can choose to drink milk when they want, but they can’t have as much as they always want. Too much milk can cause them to have scours (diarrhea). A button on their ear tells the computer that runs the feeder which calves can have more milk and which ones have had their fill for the day. As calves get older, the amount of milk they drink every day will be cut back as they are weaned and their diet consists more of hay and grain.

Lilley Farms is set among wide open fields with views of the surrounding mountains.

Lilley Farms is set among wide open fields with views of the surrounding mountains.

All this technology might seem a far cry from the bucolic, old-fashioned image people have in their heads of Maine’s dairy farms, but the advances have been important for many dairy farmers to better monitor the health of their herd and better respond to the individual needs of their cows.