New computer technology has helped to improve herd health and overall fertility rates of 360 Holstein cows at Meinside Farm, near Lockerbie, where the Hyslop family – David and sons David and Martin – farm 580 acres with 300 head of female young stock kept on a nearby unit.

Milked twice a day, the herd produces 9500litres sold per cow per year and although not a large-scale operation, relies on another three people to help out on the farm.

Cattle are reared on a predominantly grass-based system although a further 140 acres of whole crop are also grown.

All replacements are home-bred and bred from genomic bulls with sexed semen on both heifers and cows.

With the issues surrounding the milk price, David has been keen to improve the efficiency of his herd, and believes that keeping tight control of fertility management is crucial.

He is also on the Arla board of representatives, standing for the South of Scotland and North Cumbria. Part of his role is to ensure that members’ needs are looked after, feeding through information from members to the board and back again, making sure communication between the Arla board and their members is clear and well-organised.

“I’ve been on the Arla board of representatives for six years now. I really enjoy being involved, and I think it’s important to give something back to the industry.”

In doing so, he looked at options to improve herd health. “We’re always looking to improve our fertility rates, and wanted to ensure that we were continuing to achieve high standards of fertility within the herd.”

Reducing the herds’ calving index and attaining higher pregnancy rates were two of the main reasons the business looked into installing a heat detection and behavioural monitoring system. “We’re trying to achieve heifers calving under 24 months,” David said added that the business hasn't looked back since a heat detection system was installed across the herd in 2012.

"Having a heat detection system allows us to make instant decisions, which saves us time in the long run.”

One of the key factors that they were looking for was a parlour interface, which David sees as crucial for the management of their herd.

“The fact that you can access everything from your mobile phone and you don’t have to keep going back to the house to see the data is brilliant.

“It’s an excellent management tool, and allows us to make well-informed choices from the data in front of us, saving us time and improving the accuracy of the judgments we make when it comes to the productivity of the herd.”

The Hyslops have been using the CowAlert system from Edinburgh-based technology company IceRobotics across his dairy herd and have just renewed the farm’s contract for another five years.

David receives an email to his phone from IceRobotics three times a day with updates from the herd, including what individual cow numbers are bulling, when they started bulling and their recommended AI window. Alongside a heat detection and herd management system, the business also uses herd-based programme Uniform Agri.

“The heat detection technology works very well. Since installing it, we’ve put together a very successful fertility programme with our vet who comes in every Monday to do fertility work with the herd and PD the cows.

“We wouldn’t be without the system now. It’s crucial to keep control of our fertility management and is very user friendly, making it easy for everyone to understand.

“We’re at the stage where we can easily recognise the spikes on the graph and we can quickly make decisions based on the information in front of us.” This means that David and his team can tell if increased motion picked up by the sensors is because the cow is on heat, or because she’s been moving around a lot (if they have been working with a particular group of cows, for example.)

David rears his heifers on another farm, where they also use the CowAlert system, which means they can monitored using his mobile phone. He is alerted when a cow is bulling, which means an AI technician can be contacted to go in and serve the cows. “It saves us a lot of time and effort, we can do everything remotely and don’t have to travel down to see the herd before calling the AI technician.”

The only problems they have had, is getting a decent internet connection in a rural area.

“When the system was first set up, we had to use satellite internet before we were able to get a good enough signal on broadband. A poor internet connection affects the transfer of information, but I’ve been impressed with IceRobotics’ reaction to the system going offline; they’re very quick to flag up the issue with us and check the problems that we’re having.”

As an Edinburgh based business, David is able to meet with the IceRobotics team in person if need be too. Despite some rural areas having poor internet signal, IceRobotics can combat this issue and install a 4G router alongside the CowAlert system.

“The key to promoting higher yields is to reduce calving index and get higher pregnancy rates which we are working towards with an improved heat detection system. CowAlert has helped us to become more accurate and enables us to pick up any issues with cows that we might not be able to see yet.”

David said the improvements in fertility are what he noticed most in the past five years. However, it has also proved useful in other ways too.

“We recently changed the mats in the shed for a group of cows, and the system showed an increase in lying time with the new mats which helped us to see it was worthwhile.”

As well as improving timing and decision making, having a heat detection system has improved the accuracy of the AI window for the herd, as it picks up cows that David and the team can’t necessarily see.

“Having a heat detection tool has been excellent, and I would definitely consider it a worthwhile investment.”

David has recently added the CowAlert lameness module to run alongside the heat detection system, which they’re currently trialing on their herd.

“We’ve only been testing it for a month or so, but I’m hoping the lameness technology will help to flag up issues that might not be obvious to the human eye so we can get to them before they get worse.”

“I’m impressed with the continued development of the technology. We’ve seen improvements in the CowAlert ankle tags since we started using them and we now have them on all cows and heifers in the herd.”

“We’re continuing to make improvements within the herd, and we’re always looking for expansion opportunities in the future. That’s depending on the milk price, of course!”

CowAlert – How it works

Not only does CowAlert help dairy farmers to detect cows in heat, but it also monitors health and welfare issues by recording lying time through a unique Motion Index that can identify cows with potential lameness issues or other health problems.

The robust sensors are attached to the cow’s rear leg with a heavy-duty fabric strap and the sensors collect data four times per second, collated into 15minute segments, and can store up to four days of data in their on-board memory. The patented power-saving technology comes with a five-year battery life.

CowAlert’s new lameness module gives a daily alert on each cow’s likelihood to become lame. This means that lameness is continually monitored, allowing for early identification and treatment of lameness issues. Cows are highlighted as being severely lame, moderately lame, and as having no lameness. Each lame animal’s diagnosis can be recorded, building up a picture of her overall health and lameness history.

The sensors monitor a range of factors, which include:

– Activity levels – using proprietary ‘motion index’ measure

– Individual animal standing and lying duration, number of bouts and seven and 14 day averages

– Average herd lying time, daily analysis and trends over time

– Step count

– Daily mobility score (optional)