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High-tech system provides insights for dairy farmers

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
These sensors were recently put on the cows on Trim-Bel Valley Dairy in northwest Wisconsin to gather data on the cows' behavior. They are tied to Ida -- short for Intelligent Dairy Assistant - a program that collects data and uses algorithms to tell the herd manager and owners what's going on with the cattle. Connecterra, the company that offers the herd sensors and the software, connects the program with other dairy software like Dairy Comp 305 that may already be in use on farms.

Connecterra – a name derived from connect and terra for earth, meaning connected earth – was designed to bring the digital revolution to dairy farming. It uses artificial intelligence software to help dairy farmers and their industry partners like nutritionists, dairy processors, and animal health companies, make better decisions because they have more information.

Julie Larson, U.S. Regional Sales Director for the company, says Connecterra was founded in 2014 by two former Microsoft employees and has partnered with large companies like Danone (which markets the Dannon brand) and Bayer to introduce this technology to farmers to provide them with unique industry insights. The company was started eight years ago and is based in Amsterdam. It was brought to the United States three years ago.

The software and service, a SaaS business model, which the company calls Ida – short for Intelligent Dairy Assistant – is now sold in 17 countries and is available in 10 languages. The farmer can share communications in English and with the tap of a button, switch to the language needed to communicate to non-English speaking employees.

Last year the company was named the best agricultural technology startup in Europe.

According to Larson, Connecterra is the only dairy cow artificial intelligence-powered company in the world. The company also continues to have a relationship with Microsoft and Google to bring the dairy industry the most innovative technology.

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Going forward, Connecterra plans to continue to increase its involvement in high-level research and development projects focused on animal health, animal welfare, sustainability, and agricultural technology integration on the farm.

Ida currently tracks seven cow behavioral patterns and the programmers are working on 13 more. By integrating the cow data with data from farm management systems, farmer insights, and third-party data -- like weather information -- unique insights are generated for the farmer.

Larson explains that the system can be used on cows in freestalls or those that are out on pastures. It tracks cows’ behaviors walking, lying, and standing and allows users to breed all the cows naturally, without using timed-breeding programs. That allows many farmers to meet animal welfare goals.

One 600-cow dairy was able to reduce Timed AI Programs 20 percent per week with the use of Ida. It can also reduce the use of antibiotics and improve cow health by alerting the farmer or herd manager to problems before they become more serious.

It integrates with 16 commonly used on-farm systems like Dairy Comp 305, BoviSync, and PC Dart. Larson said that through Ida’s machine learning models and utilizing algorithms, Ida can detect when a cow is getting mastitis, milk fever, metritis, lameness, dystocia, or a DA (displaced abomasum) one or two days ahead of a human caretaker.

Utilizing data from the company-supplied sensors, Ida detects rumination issues or reduced feed intakes when a cow is coming into heat, is non-cycling, or about to calve. Ida can track the effect of management changes, like the effect of a change in bedding material or a change in a feed ingredient.

The system can help the farmer troubleshoot and “get ahead of the curve” she said, in the case of something like moldy corn silage. “Ida will give them a flashing alert showing that the whole herd was agitated. That way the farmer can have a chance to figure out the problem before it becomes more serious.”

Larson notes that the system can be a way for farmers and farm managers to cut down on labor needs. With the system in place there is less need to have a farm employee walking pens routinely every day and fresh cow management can be simplified. This means that current farm employees can spend less time on those tasks and focus on other jobs.

The vision of the company’s founders is for farmers to use this unique on-farm information and dovetail with outside data like weather service information, and take herd management “right down to soil health” like how to grow the best corn for silage, for example.

The system currently has tens of thousands of subscribers, she said, in 17 countries. “There are 20 in Kenya. In the United States we have subscribers in Wisconsin, Kansas, Idaho, Indiana, California, and other states. Users range from 4,000-cow dairies to much smaller herds.”

Farmers like it because it is insight-driven and because it’s “very easy and amazingly simple” to use, she said. Connecterra owns the hardware and supplies the software as a service to farmers for a subscription fee. “Farmers love that,” she adds.

With the issue of Covid-19 at the forefront, many farmers are able to sign up for their subscriptions and install the systems themselves. “We can often do that remotely if the farm layout is right and as long as someone knows a little something about technology. Often we can use a video chat to show and tell onboarding,” she said.

According to Larson there is no other company with an enterprise platform like theirs. Farms can use Ida at multiple locations to compare pregnancy rates and other measures of herd performance, or just use it at one individual location. Veterinarians and reproduction specialists can use it to see what’s going on in the herd too.

This kind of technology will be pivotal to the industry in the future, she believes. As dairy farms work to get more efficient, technology will be a part of it.

Larson said as farms get larger, the system can take the place of an owner’s or manager’s “eyes on the herd, 24/7” in cases like those that have made the news where animal rights people infiltrate the farm and videotape allegations of abuse. “The algorithms can take the place of those managers keeping watch over the herd and alert them to anything that is not normal cow behavior.”

Working with farmers as she does, Larson notes that Ida means fewer sick cows, less antibiotic use, fewer timed AI programs, fewer open cows, and more efficient use of farm labor. The whole system brings more efficiency and creates a stronger partnership for the farm’s advisors. It can also be of benefit for the animal welfare goals and sustainability measures for the dairy farm.