For one “unofficially forever” dairy farmer in Clarissa, the health of the cows is a top priority⁠—even if that means adding ear tags to keep tabs on how they’re doing.

The tags, produced by Allflex Livestock Intelligence, are the cow equivalent of a Fitbit. They can be worn on the ears or on neck collars.

The 850 cows at Twin Eagle Dairy were outfitted with Fitbit-like tags in October 2019. (Rebecca Mitchell / Rural Living)
The 850 cows at Twin Eagle Dairy were outfitted with Fitbit-like tags in October 2019. (Rebecca Mitchell / Rural Living)

Pat Lunemann, of Twin Eagle Dairy, learned about the technology about five years ago. Lunemann started as co-owner and general manager of the family farm back in 1979. For the past few years, he debated the “very high” cost of the Fitbit-like tags, and then in October 2019, decided to go for it and began leasing 1,000 ear tags.

The tags send signals to a computer system, which analyzes the data and alerts employees of changes to a cow’s health. With 850 cows on site and milking around the clock at Twin Eagle Dairy, the daily graphs on each cow provide a way for Lunemann’s workers to organize their morning duties, and they also impact the frequency of veterinarian visits.

“Anything that’s out of the normal is flagged, so if a cow is not moving as much as she should, she’s not going up to the bunk to eat, it will let you know, and it’ll say you need to look at these certain cows,” Lunemann said. “Oftentimes, the system will alert you to a cow’s problems two, three days ahead of when we would visually be able to see it, and that is worth so much.”

A cow might have ketosis, for example, a blood sugar imbalance that can lead to the cow “crashing” because it did not eat. The condition can lead to a twisted stomach and then require surgery or cause death if not treated, according to Lunemann. But the solution is simple if caught early: a bottle of sugar water through an IV, or the oral fluid propylene glycol.

“With the value of cows being what it is, if we can save one to two cows per month, that alone pays for it (the technology),” Lunemann said.

Since cows are creatures of habit, a slight change like walking around the herd three times instead of once can alert employees to a cow being in heat—when she is looking for a bull—and the technology tracks these changes. When there is increased activity on a graph for a particular cow, usually around day 19 to 20 out of a 21-day cycle, according to Lunemann, she will be inseminated the next morning.

If the cow does not come into heat as tracked by the technology, then she is likely pregnant, which decreases the urgency of a veterinarian confirming the pregnancy. A veterinarian check means the cow is cut off from the group, which can cause confusion, according to Lunemann.

“So now the cows can just go about their business,” Lunemann said.

Cows at Twin Eagle Dairy are placed on a routine of calving every 12 to 14 months since cows must have calves to produce milk, according to Lunemann. The cows milk for 10 months and then are off for two months of rest.

Each day, Lunemann and his employees can check the general cow management screen to see which heifers are ready for insemination, which cows need health attention and which cows are getting ready to calve. They can select a specific cow on the left side of the screen.

The technology is a piece of what is changing in the milk industry, from the “rapid pace” change in genomics that allows sampling a piece of hair or performing a blood test on a heifer instead of a three to four year comparing process to the removal of BST in the industry that would make cows hungry, according to Lunemann.

Over the next 10 years, Lunemann said dairy farming will become more efficient with the scientific changes. He does not expect production to double, though: When he started in 1979, the business produced 12,000 to 13,000 pounds of milk a year; today, it produces 26,000 pounds.

The Fitbit-like technology is a change seen in mostly mid- to large-sized cow herds due to the cost, according to Lunemann, as it has a set-up fee of $9,000 and a lease of $2 per ear tag.

The yields of health and reproductive data might just be worth it, though, Lunemann said: “It’s amazing what this little tiny tag can do.”