High-tech system at work on this Wisconsin farm

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
Trim-Bel Valley Dairy Team from left, Kevin Lee, Lanette and Jim Harsdorf, Mark Mitchell, Brian Lee, son Justin Harsdorf, nephew Ryan Bailey, and son Johnathan Harsdorf and his wife, Karissa.

SPRING VALLEY – One Wisconsin herdsman who began using Connecterra’s integrated herd management system called Ida – for Intelligent Dairy Assistant – has seen a lot of improvements in how he manages the dairy herd he works with.

Mark Mitchell began working for Lanette and Jim Harsdorf at their Trim-Bel Valley Dairy in Spring Valley in 2014 when the family added onto their existing facility and increased herd numbers.

Mitchell had experience working with larger dairy herds, including that of his father-in-law, and the Harsdorfs were looking for someone with that kind of knowledge.

The team at Trim-Bel knew they needed some sort of herd management system and had tried another one but it wasn’t compatible with their rotary parlor. “But we knew something like this would be helpful,” he said.

As is often the case in agriculture, it was a people-to-people connection that brought “Ida” to the farm. Mitchell knew Julie Larson, (see main story) who is the U.S. Regional Sales Director for Connecterra. He usually catches up with her at World Dairy Expo. They’ve known each other since both were part of a Young Farmer program with Accelerated Genetics. When he visited with Larson he learned of her new position with Connecterra. She had just been to the Netherlands where the company is headquartered.

“I always look forward to seeing her and after hearing about this system we did some research and had a few meetings. With the owners on board we decided to give Ida a try,” he said.

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The system arrived at the farm in the late spring, just as concerns about the coronavirus pandemic were reaching a high level. So it was an advantage that the system was so easy to self-install, he said.

“It is easy to use and it was easy to install, which was good since no one could come to the farm. With a video call it took only an hour or two to install,” Mitchell said. The system arrived at the farm with all the neckbands and sensors, which are supplied by the company.

“It turned out to be pretty good timing because of the virus and all,” he said. “It is pretty simple to use. It made my life a lot easier.”

Mitchell said he most appreciates the health and breeding efficiencies he has gained on the herd since they began using the system.

Lanette Harsdorf comments that the system allows Mark to do a better job of taking care of the animals. It provides information that allows them to not have to second-guess herd management decisions.

The system arrived at the farm with all the neckbands and sensors, which are supplied by the company. Using a video call, the team at the farm was able to get the sensors up and running.

Before they had the help of Ida, the veterinarian was at the farm every Monday to do pregnancy checks. Since they have had the help of Ida, they have only had to call the vet for vaccinations and routine care. Instead of having the vet checking for pregnant cows, Mitchell is doing blood tests for pregnancy at 32 days, then doing a milk test for pregnancy at 60 to 90 days and then a third test before they dry cows off to make sure those cows are still pregnant.

In the meantime, Ida alerts them to cows that are non-cycling, when they are in heat and when to breed them. It also picks up cows that have gotten cystic, because they always show behavior associated with being in heat. Mitchell figures that over time, because of how well Ida knows the cows, he will be able to stop using the pregnancy tests.

As Lanette noted, “they aren’t showing heats, because they’ve been bred and they are pregnant.”

Mitchell notes that the herd hasn’t had a DA (displaced abomasum) in two or three months. Lanette said that while Ida may get some of the credit for that, most of that improvement goes to a change in dry cow ration that they made with the help of their veterinarian. “But it is true that Ida offers information on that group and we would know if something was wrong there.”

Mitchell says he appreciates the way the system has given him much greater breeding efficiencies with the herd. Because he gets alerts on cow heats and when to breed, they are able to breed cows on their natural heat cycles rather than relying on an ov-synch program. That saves money and labor on the farm.

Ida also allows them to catch cows that might not show heats as overtly as others – what are called “silent heats.” With Ida, those cows are identified and can be bred in a timely way and remain in the herd.

“It saves us so much second-guessing. You worry less that you’re missing things,” Lanette said.

She likes how the system catches cows not eating and showing other behaviors that reflect what cows do just before they get sick. Because the farm has that lead-time -- from when a cow is just starting to feel “off” – they are able to catch cows before they get really sick. This allows them to prevent major problems.  “It just allows us to do a better job of taking care of our animals,” she said.

Each morning when Mitchell checks in with Ida on the farm’s main computer, the screen shows him which cows to breed and cows with potential health problems among other things. A summary shows him which cows are dropping on feed intake.

He can get retrospective reports from the system on groups or pens of cows and look at how their health and reproduction has been going.

Lanette and her son, Justin, also have access to the Ida information on their phones. “It’s very user friendly and I’m sure as time goes on we will all use it more. We haven’t even been using it for a whole year yet, so we are all still learning,” she said. She’s very happy with the way the system works hand-in-hand with Dairy Comp.

In the rare case that all the cows are standing or agitated Ida will alert them with a question – “what’s going on here?” alerting them to problems that may be occurring with the whole herd at once. Lanette notes that this alert might come up when there is something affecting all the cows at the same time, like when the weather is really hot.

Mitchell said he appreciates the interaction with the system and can see that it is improving all the time. “It never grows old, just keeps getting better,” he says. “The more you report back, the more Ida learns about the farm and the better the system works.”