How RFID delivers big data on cows, milk production

By Brian T. Horowitz, Editor and Contributing Writer

We know that big data has been used in retail, health care and finance, but you might be surprised to find out that it also helps farmers with dairy production. This practice, called precision dairy farming, involves the use of technology such as RFID tags and sensors to track the health of cows, which are essential to the economy in areas such as India.

Vishvas Chitale, director of Chitale Dairy, in Bhilawadi, India, explained the role the grass-grazing animals play for farmers.

“It’s very important for them as revenue because for farming companies in India we call cows ATMs,” Chitale told Power More.

“If you feed the animal, you get milk the next day,” he said. “By a week’s time you get money, and that’s very important for the rural community in India. That’s why we’ve been able to sustain for the last 75 years as an organization.”

The company produces about 500,000 liters of milk per day, along with cheese, cottage cheese, cream, butter, yogurt and skimmed milk powder.

Reducing the number of cows

Chitale sells about 60 million liters of milk per year from its dairy farm and smaller farms in Bhilawadi. From 2014-2015, India has exported more than66,000 metric tons of dairy products, according to the Indian government’s Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority.

For Chitale Dairy, the goal is to increase the amount of milk production while reducing the number of cows, which in great numbers contribute to the amount of methane in the environment, Chitale said.

“By reducing the number of cows, we can really help the environment,” he said. “We want to have less cows but more productivity.”

How the cloud and big data boost milk yield

Chitale Dairy deploys a “cows-to-cloud” strategy to increase the milk yield. Farmers access the data in a cloud portal and use the data to help with animal trading.

“It’s like creating an ecosystem whereby all the stakeholders get the benefit of the compute,” Chitale said. “If [farmers] want to trade their animal and we publish that information about her health, it provides value to them.”

At a weekly bazaar, the Chitale Dairy farmers receive money in exchange for the cow milk they’ve produced for the week. In addition, many farmers in India are trading cows online.

To monitor the cows, Chitale Dairy places Allflex RFID tags in cows’ ears to receive information on whether the animals are in heat, need to be vaccinated or dewormed, Chitale said. This information is transmitted via the cloud to farmers’ mobile devices.

Farmers call the Chitale Dairy call center, which sends the data to a mobile app, with the RFID number matching up with a particular cow. The farm then sends a to-do list to farmers in their local language each morning on what each cow needs based on the data collected from the RFID signals.

Companies such as Allflex, GEA and Y-Tex offer these RFID tags.

Chitale Dairy maintains a database of 10,000 animals along with a complete progeny and medical history.

“The secret of the whole system is this is cow 1626, and whatever data I collect relates to her,” Michael Hutjens, professor emeritus in animal sciences at the University of Illinois, told Power More. “The beauty of the tag is the ability to track the animal.”

Chitale Dairy uses the data to track blood profiles and the nutrition requirements of cows, such as whether the animals are getting the proper iron or calcium.

For example, the system sends messages on whether a cow is having a calf.

“The whole idea is to have a complete life cycle of the animal,” Chitale said.

The dairy farm also uses genetic mating software to track whether offspring are producing with “greater genetic gain” than their mothers, Chitale said.

From the data received by RFID tags, Chitale Dairy performs mineral mapping and blood profiling.

Monitoring the data allows Chitale Dairy to increase milk production by more than 5 liters per animal, Chitale said.

The sensors also keep track of how much a cow eats per day.

“If one day cows only spend one day eating, then these alerts tell us something is going on with this cow and then we can look at her and try to find the best course of action,” said Jeffrey Bewley, associate extension professor at the University of Kentucky.

Maintaining a good price point

Network virtualization allows Chitale Dairy to maintain uptime for its milk production. Chitale Dairy uses the VMware vSphere virtualization platform and Dell networking switches to be able to make the data available to farmers so they can make decisions, such as how to improve cow nutrition and increase milk production, based on the animals’ health.

“It was very difficult for us to maintain a good price point,” Chitale said. “One of the reasons to use virtualization, Dell hardware and good networking is to make information available to farmers so they can make the right decisions, and [these technologies] are helping us to do that.”

Tracking illness

By monitoring the health of cows using RFID tags and sensors, farmers can detect whether the animals suffer from conditions such as mastitis, a potentially fatal infection of the udder tissue, or lameness, which is difficulty in moving around.

Discovering mastitis is a top parameter for farmers to adopt precision dairy technology such as RFID, according to Bewley and fellow University of Kentucky researcher Matt Borcher. Other factors include standing heat and daily milk yield.

Sensors can also track if a cow is running a fever or hasn’t eaten in 48 hours, Hutjens said.

The future of big data in farming

Despite the advantages that big data brings to agriculture and milk production, farmers may not have the time to absorb all of this data.

“It’s assuming that the farmer has time to look at the data and that the farmer is willing to stare at a screen for hours on end,” said Patrick Zelaya, founder ofHeavyConnect, a Salinas, California, startup that develops software to make agriculture field data actionable. “It’s more than just creating and displaying valuable data but integrating that data into the operation without it turning into a video game for the farmer.”

To solve the problem, farmers will need to have someone dedicated to spending at least an hour a day analyzing big data, Hutjens said.

“It requires good management and commitment to use the system,” he said.

Analysis of the data could lead to checking the health of a cow, including taking the temperature and giving calcium, Hutjens explained.

Marcia I. Endres, professor in the department of animal science at the University of Minnesota, sees big data becoming more common in dairy farms in the future.

“There are many technologies in the market and more coming that collect a lot of information about each cow, plus there are more automated milking systems that collect samples and analyze the milk every day, generating a lot of data too,” Endres said. “Therefore, data integration and analysis coupled with decision-making tools will be very key to the success of the dairy industry in the future.”

We’re just starting as far as the possibilities for big data, farming and milk production, Bewley said.

“I think we’re just at the beginning,” he said. “We need to continue be innovative in what technologies we’re developing and working with the end user to figure out how to make them work.”

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