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Motion Detectors Aid Dairy Farmers

Karl Klessig holds a cow’s activity collar on his family’s farm Wednesday Aug. 28, 2013, in Cleveland, Wis. The collar carries a motion detector and microphone that picks up the sound of chewing. Data from the collar is scanned and sent to a computer when cows leave the milking parlor. Klessig and his partners use the information to determine when the cows should be bred. More farmers using these types of systems to reduce reliance on drugs in breeding and cut labor costs. (AP Photo/M.L. Johnson)

Karl Klessig holds a cow’s activity collar on his family’s farm Wednesday Aug. 28, 2013, in Cleveland, Wis. The collar carries a motion detector and microphone that picks up the sound of chewing. Data from the collar is scanned and sent to a computer when cows leave the milking parlor. Klessig and his partners use the information to determine when the cows should be bred. More farmers using these types of systems to reduce reliance on drugs in breeding and cut labor costs. (AP Photo/M.L. Johnson)

Madison, Wis. — Every step a cow takes and every mouthful she eats at Saxon Homestead Farm is recorded by an electronic device on a collar around her neck. Since cows in heat move more and digest less, farmers can use the data to determine when to breed them.

Karl Klessig, whose family has a dairy farm and cheese-making business in eastern Wisconsin, describes it as a kind of natural family planning system for bovines.

Activity tracking systems have been available for decades, but interest in them has grown as the technology becomes more accurate and easier to use. The collars don’t eliminate the use of hormones because some cows, like some people, have difficulty getting pregnant, but farmers said the systems reduce drug use, help cut labor costs and provide an added benefit — early warnings of illness.

The collars are designed for and almost exclusively used by dairy farmers who must keep cows pregnant to keep the milk flowing.

If the animals don’t give birth about once a year, their milk will dry up, similar to a woman who stops breastfeeding. Cows then cost more to feed than they earn, and eventually, they’re sold for slaughter.

Klessig’s family was among the first in the U.S. to invest three years ago in a system sold by Israel-based SCR. Their collars carry motion detectors and microphones that pick up the sound of chewing, which reflects digestion. Cows leaving the milking parlor go through a gate where the electronic boxes on their collars are scanned. The gate sends cows in heat in one direction and the rest in another. A vet comes to the farm each morning to breed the animals that are ready.

“For us, with our cheese factory, we want to be as wholesome and natural as we can be,” said Klessig, whose family milks 550 cows in Cleveland, Wis.

Successful breeding usually involves artificial insemination within a matter of hours after cows ovulate. Some farms use a combination of hormones to induce ovulation so the cows can be bred at the right moment. Others have workers watch cows for signs of heat; monitoring systems are a labor-saving alternative.

Stephen LeBlanc, an associate professor at the Ontario Veterinary College, said during the recent World Dairy Expo in Madison that the attraction of a monitoring system is that farms that don’t want to use hormones don’t need as many workers to watch the cows.

“There’s really no public health threat at all from the hormones that are used in cows for managing reproduction,” LeBlanc said. “Nevertheless, it’s absolutely appealing to producers to not need to employ that tool. It’s more pleasant for them; it’s more pleasant for the cows.”

There are no totals for how many dairy farms use activity monitoring because most companies don’t release sales. But Tom Breunig, SCR’s general manager in the U.S., said 2 million cows worldwide wore his company’s collars at the end of last year, and that number was expected to double in two years.