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Collar for cows part of 'smart' farming

We all know what a dog collar is...but a cow collar?

Campbell Clayton-Greene, former Olympic rower and dairy farmer, uses an Israeli-developed collar to measure heat levels in his cows. That's heat, as in 'on heat', not heat as in keeping warm.

It's an example of the technology and innovation Clayton-Greene and wife Delwyn have brought to their farming. None of the various advances they have embraced for the farm they sharemilk are particularly revolutionary but they have used them all in a way that brings increased efficiency and productivity.

Like the heat detection collar...it's an aid that shortcuts the mating process by detecting heat changes that mean a cow is in season.

The Clayton-Greenes use artificial insemination, like many farmers, rather than the more difficult process of engaging a bull or bulls. But there's one problem with AI - it might be an efficient impregnator of a dairy herd but it can't tell when the cows are ready (whereas the bull is an extremely efficient detector).

In the time-is-money ethic that applies to farming every bit as much as big business, there are several benefits to keeping on top of the reproductive process.

Efficient and well-timed mating means a reduced calving cycle, giving cows more time in milk, increasing profits and down time, meaning more opportunity to address other issues or even - imagine! - leisure time.

"For us, it largely comes down to savings," says Clayton-Greene, 49, from Ngatea. "If we didn't have the heat detectors, we'd have to employ an extra person at mating time."

Clayton-Greene was a member of the New Zealand rowing coxless four at the 1988 Seoul Olympics (they won the B final) and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (sixth in the final). Just as new techniques, rigorous training and focused application pays dividends in the sport, the same is true in farming.

While the basics haven't changed (water, oars, shells) and Kiwi rowers are renowned for training harder than anyone else, there is always an advantage to be gained by addressing the science as well - like the scientific study done ahead of Rio on the stress levels on rowers' hearts to ensure optimum training sessions.

For Campbell and Delwyn, the stimulus for looking deeper into innovation and technology was when they started looking into how better to run the side-by-side farms owned by Delwyn's parents and which had 500 cows being milked in two separate sheds.

"We had been sharemilking for them for about 15 years, I guess, and we made the decision five or six years ago that it was time to rationalise things and put everything through one shed," says Clayton-Greene.

They now have 600 cows in that one shed "and I guess it was efficiencies that allowed us to intensify our farming.

"Again, what it means for us is largely labour saving; a good farm worker is employed for around $40,000 a year - that's quite a bit of cash to pay out."

Among the advances made are a rotary shed, automatic cup removers and automatic drafting - the process by which cows are separated from the herd; they may need a visit to the vet for vaccination or treatment or singling out for mating time.

That can also be a time-consuming job but simple instructions keyed into the system means the automatic drafting singles out the right cows at the right time.

Clayton-Greene has also invested in automated gate openers. They are ideal for paving the way for a long line of expectant cows walking themselves to the milking shed - an iconic New Zealand farming scene but which can take one person the best part of an hour if he or she has to open the gates.

"You always want the cows to come to milking themselves," says Campbell, "and if the gates automatically open for them they do - or they do at least 95 per cent of the time. Sometimes they might get blown a bit off course if there has been a big storm or something like that."

With the time saved, the Clayton-Greenes have been able to devote more time and attention to pasture harvest; he estimates they have managed to bump up their grass harvest to 14 tonnes per hectare from 12 tonnes per hectare.

Good grass means good milk and healthy cows and the enhanced grass yield is a significant gain, especially when you have increased your herd by 20 per cent. It also means, while they still have to bring some feed in, they are less exposed to feed costs to help cushion them from any downturn.

Nor does it end there. Delwyn, Campbell says, is "very happy" with the farm's new Xero accounting software, with all their bookwork now done and stored online - leaving behind the need to run expensive Windows software on her prized Apple computer.

"It's been an interesting time," says Clayton-Greene. "I won't say it's been trouble-free - we have had some teething problems with the technology - but on the whole, it has really been worth our while and we are getting some significant results."

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