My Placement on a Robotic Dairy Farm

This last week I completed a placement on a robotic dairy farm. I was very interested to see how a dairy functioned/filled up their time if there wasn’t 2 or 3 scheduled milking times a day. Through this week I learned that dairy operations are all about routine and cycles.

Each day starts and ends with feeding calves. We would use diverted milk from the robots and milk from the bulk tank to fill a portable pasteurizer. The machine would warm the milk to a sufficient temperature for calves. Specific amounts of milk could be dispensed from the pasteurizer into nipple buckets for the calves. Older calves were group housed and also received pellets. Sometimes calves have not learned how to drink off the nipple buckets and we have to help/teach them. Newborn calves are taken off their mothers and bottle fed (or stomach tubed) 2L of colostrum 3 times in the first 12 hours. The babies also receive a preventative scours pill.

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This calf is settling down for a nap after her bottle of colostrum. 

Other regular chores include moving animals around the farm depending on what stage in their lactation cycle they are at. Cows that are kept outside will grow a winter coat so they can keep warm. Once the cows are brought inside (because they are fresh) they will be too hot and sweaty in the barn. One day I spent a bit of time trimming a cow so she would be more comfortable. (I hope they aren’t planning on showing her anytime soon!). Checking young stock for foot problems, pink eye, gait, signs of estrus, signs of abortions in bred cows, etc. is also a daily task. Three times during the day the mattress beds are raked clean and bedding spread out. This helps to keep the cows clean and comfortable reducing the risk of infection.

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These are memory foam beds with a rubber mat on top and gypsum bedding. DYK that cows produce more milk if they are lying down and ruminating? This is great incentive for farmers to make sure their cows are as comfortable as possible!

It is always essential to make sure the robots are working properly. This involves checking stats and alarms on the computer in the office. Sometimes cows that go through the robots are marked as ‘incomplete’ because not all 4 quarters of their udder were milked. Each of these cows needs to be found in the barn and checked (possibly mastitis, kicking off cups, bad conformation, etc) and then milked out. I stripped a quarter of an udder by hand in a cow that had mastitis (we did a CMT test first) and then gave her treatment. Each time we medicate a cow that treatment needs to be entered into the computer system so that when the robot milks her the treated milk can be diverted out of the bulk tank.

Outside of the regular routine on the dairy we artificially inseminated (AI) a couple of cows based on the observation of estrus behavior (mounting), activity levels recorded in the computer, and days in milk.

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This is a liquid nitrogen storage container for semen straws used for AI. 

Every 2 weeks on the dairy a herd health check is completed by the veterinarian. On Wednesday the vet was doing pre-breed checks and preg-checks. I grabbed a glove and palpated along behind the vet trying to feel the things he was describing. (For my non-animal friends this does mean that I was sticking my arm up cow butts). Next, we went to another barn and preg-checked heifers to assess if they were open(not pregnant), bred (pregnant), or needed to be started on an ovsynch protocol. When the vet comes he sedates some of the older calves so that we can go through and dehorn them with a hot iron dehorner. Cattle need to be dehorned to make the farm safer for other animals and staff.

On Friday I was lucky enough to be put in contact with the farm’s nutritionist. Well managed farms will typically consult with a nutritionist to formulate appropriate diets for the different groups of animals. It was a farm call day for the nutritionist so as we drove around we chatted about feed, agriculture, dairies, school, etc. The first dairy we visited was a simpler operation than the one I was on all week. The most interesting area was the nurse cows. Cows that were not good milkers were removed from the herd and put in a pen with calves. The calves suckled naturally from the cows until they were about 5 months of age. We visited a second dairy after lunch as well. I found it interesting that not only did the nutritionist complete Pen State Shaker tests, discuss rations, and evaluate feed–he also consulted the farm on all other areas of management.

Professional hoof trimmers will visit dairy barns a few times a year. Lameness/gait issues are often a major problem in dairy barns. To treat cows with foot rot, ulcers, and other problems the regular staff can do touch ups on the cattle. I learned that sometimes the hoof trimmer will add a wooden block to the hoof to reduce pressure on certain areas and promote healing.

 

The farmer I spent some of my time with this week is extremely forward thinking and willing to try new things to move his farm business forward. One of his latest trials included feeding yucca as an additive. According to the workers the yucca seemed to be increasing the dry matter intake of the cows and stabilizing intake over the week. I’ve seen many cool feeds for dairy cattle on other farms including: brewers grains, candy, oranges/lemons, grapeseed, etc.

I got to practice my cattle clinical skills this week with IV injections through the jugular, drawing blood through the tail vein, giving intra-mammary infusions and several intramuscular injections, palpating, and even trying my hand at dehorning!

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These friendly ladies supervised me as I worked all week. 

 

I apologize for the long post! I had a lot of fun on the dairy this week; it reminded me of my time in my undergrad studying dairy science, preparing for the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge and competing at the regional and national competitions in California and Indiana. I would highly recommend this competition to any pre-vet or vet students in North America!

Dairy farming is quite different in North America than it is in Australia! I would love to chat more about the differences in the industry with anyone interested.

For a brief overview of the robotic farm I was at check out this quirky video a few of my previous classmates made:

 

Dookie Trip

A little while ago my whole DVM1 class packed up and went out to the University of Melbourne’s Dookie campus as part of our Animal Health and Production Systems class. I was excited, because who doesn’t like a couple days without lectures?

In the morning we caught the bus from our regular campus bright and early and began a drive out into the Australian country side. As we move from spring into summer, the rainfall has decreased and the pastures are not growing as fast and are beginning to dry up and turn yellow. Our first stop was at Chatswood, a thoroughbred horse stud.  A stud farm is a farm that focuses on breeding of animals.

The horse racing industry is huge in AUS, especially in Melbourne. High class and very famous races like the Melbourne Cup take place only a few minutes from my house! Unfortunately the Melbourne Cup is on one of the same days as my final exams this year so it doesn’t look like I’ll be going.

The farm was built on 1000 acres and is very impressive looking. We talked a bit about the process behind bringing mares to be served by 1 of the 3 stallions on the property and everything that process included. Thoroughbreds are only allowed to have natural breedings  (instead of artificial insemination) and this brings along a new set of challenges and things to look out for. My group was lucky because we got to watch some vet checks on the horses, each horse would come in for an ultrasound to look for follicles on her ovaries. If the follicles are a certain size the vet will say she is ready for breeding soon. The ultrasound is also used to detect if the horses are pregnant and if they have twins. It is very hard for twins to be carried to term in horses and so if 2 embryos are detected one of them will need to be terminated. We also got to watch a Caslick procedure being preformed and undone (this is a very common and minor surgical procedure that equine vets will do).

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Reward for Effort; Taken from: http://chatswoodstud.com.au/stallions/reward/

Our group then went to the breeding area; it is very nice, clean, quiet, and covered. Here we watched a teaser stallion come in and prep a mare for her breeding. I then quietly peaked through a hole in the gate to watch Reward for Effort (one of Chatswood’s best stallions) breed the mare. Thoroughbred breeding on a stud is very expensive ($11 000 for a service) and an important procedure that can be very dangerous for the handlers.

The foaling area has a 24 hour watch over all of the paddocks as each foaling is assisted. After each foal is born a blood sample is taken and assessed.

Next we went to Kennedy Creek, which was our professor’s own polled Dorset farm. I found it actually really cool to create a connection between someone we are learning A LOT from in lecture and his actual life experience in agriculture. Dorset sheep are used for meat but not wool. This does not mean that they do not need to be sheared! The wool from these sheep would only generate an income of 5% or less for the farm.

Polled Dorset Sheep: Picture provided with permission

Polled Dorset Sheep:
Picture provided with permission

While on farm our prof (who is also a vet) identified a sick sheep. The animal was moved out of the hot sun to recover. The sheep was likely sick with either thiamine deficiency or pulpy kidney (no way to know unless diagnostic tests were done). While we were on farm the sheep began to improve and look better. Talking about this individual sick sheep was a great learning opportunity on the differences between single animals and herd health.

The second day started at the sheep farm on Dookie Campus where we were able to assist with the marking of lambs. Marking included putting elastic on the tails of all sheep (tail docking) and testicles of male sheep (castration), vaccination (for Clostridial diseases), applying fly strike spray, and applying an ear tag for identification.

This is a 'cradle' it is a piece of equipment that helps the farming with marking

This is a ‘cradle’ it is a piece of equipment that helps the farming with marking

After we were finished marking the lambs we went inside the shed to look at the rams. We discussed important things to assess at a ram sale (teeth, toes, temperament, testicles, and skin). We also spoke about crutching and muesling and the advantages and disadvantages of each husbandry practice. I thought it was interesting that Dookie is one of the only farms in VIC that does not muels their sheep; the practice was supposed to be banned in AUS around 2 years ago but fell through because of the fly strike problems. We practiced catching sheep and how to safely tip them over so we can look at them (always fun!).

Our last stop was to the dairy calves and then the Dookie Campus robotic dairy! Here is some coverage from when the dairy opened:

This is the same dairy we visited during my first week of vet school. Cows can be milked whenever they please, the robot will take a sample from each cow to test for infection and milk quality. The robot is able to keep track of all cows treated with medications and what the withdrawal periods. Detecting when cows are ready to breed is very complicated in the dairy industry—the robots can help with this too!! The robots will keep track of all the steps each cow takes (each cow wears a pedometer) and the amount of rumination/chewing to create a graph that will give a good indication of when the cow is in heat (ready to breed)!! How cool is it to see science and farming come together like this?!

I really enjoyed getting out of the city for a couple of days and seeing these high quality and top class farms was very interesting! 🙂

I can blog and study right?

I’m writing this blog post as a half procrastination-half studying tool because I really like theriogenology and reproductive technologies (and I may have a quiz tomorrow on this stuff…). They are relatively new and there is so much advancement and growth in that field! And so much more work to be done there as well…

Here are 3 of reproductive technologies that can be used for genetic improvement.

Artificial Insemination (AI) is a reproductive technology where semen is harvested from male animals and stored in semen straws that can then be deposited into chosen females. It is used to increase male selection and can therefore potentially increase the accuracy of the Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs). Semen can be sourced from all over the world and can potentially increase the effective population size (amount of genetically unrelated animals in a population). However, using a dairy bull from the USA may not be a great choice for an AUS dairy farmer as environmental interactions may pop up! AI is not used as often in the beef industry because it is more costly and labour intensive. AI is too expensive to do on commercial sheep farms as the procedure is different, it involves surgical insemination of the females. However, sheep stud farmers may use AI as they are selling the offspring for a lot more money (thus more cost effective). The benefits of using AI in your industry include:

  1. Increases the accuracy of EBVs and male selection
  2. Allows commercial breeders to access genetic information that previously would have been too expensive (and used only at a stud level)
  3. Allows great genetics to be rapidly spread throughout a population (because many semen straws can be made from one male)
  4. Technically forms a ‘world flock/herd’ of animals

Multiple Ovulation Embryo Transfer (MOET) is used to increase female selection and can therefore potentially increase the accuracy of the EBVs. However, this is a very expensive procedure as it involves taking a superior female animal, using hormones to get her to produce more eggs and then harvesting the eggs. MOET allows the female genetics to be spread farther/faster into the population. MOET is best used in species who usually only produce one egg at a time like cows.

Inbreeding can be a big problem with MOET, so farmers need to develop a good breeding scheme/plan to avoid this. It is best to use females with good genetics and semen from males with good genetics (as opposed to fresh semen and females that harvest/flush well).

This leads to a concept which I find exciting (and ethically interesting!) which is called Juvenile In Vitro Embryo Transfer (JIVET). Since all females are born with the total number of eggs they need in life, these can technically be harvested at a very young age (juvenile). These harvested eggs can then be in vitro fertilized and develop into offspring. This reduces the generation inverval and increases selection intensity. There are current issues with this reproductive technology that have not been worked out yet—and so it is not common.

I apologize if some of the terms and concepts were a bit too confusing for some of my non-vet friends; however if you are interested in food or wool production this is a vital part of the industry. Feel free to pose any queries you might have and I’ll try  my best to answer 🙂

At work in my old University dairy barn

At work in my old University dairy barn

Semester 2

I think its about time I sent out a quick little update! After finishing my first semester of DVM the winter break in July was much anticipated! Now I’m back into the thick of it, and have just finished my first midterm of semester 2. The classes I am in this term are:

Cardiovascular System

Foundations of Animal Health 2

Animal Health in Production Systems

Cardio takes up a lot of my time, but I find it quite interesting! This is the first class I’ve taken where I’m actually required to build on knowledge I’ve learned in previous classes (last semester) to understand whole concepts. Previously I’ve just gathered knowledge, but now I’m starting to integrate it. We have had some cool practical classes in cardio so far, listening to equine hearts and trying to hear murmurs, testing out our stethoscope skills on dogs, trialing drug reactions on organ tissue, and practicing blood pressure readings.

Foundations of Animal Health 2 is a continuation of FAH1 that I took last semester, currently we have been learning about controversial animal welfare issues. A lot of these issues I learned about, researched, or wrote on in my undergrad (beak trimming, tail-docking, de-horning, housing systems/confinement, sentience/ability to feel pain, etc), however, it is now very different to learn about the issue from an Australian perspective. I’ve also been able to discuss some more Australian-specific issues such as: jump racing, kangaroo culling, and mulesing. So far I;m liking this course a lot better than I did last semester!

Animal Health in Production Systems has so far covered the different types of animal industries that I might be working or involved in. We have focused on swine, (pet) exotic birds, dairy, beef, camelids, sheep, and horses. This course included the information and handling practice I completed during my very first week of vet school! The lectures we have had on birds have been really interesting to me! While working in vet clinics I have seen many sick birds come in; now I have the background knowledge and husbandry tips to better understand this cases. The dairy industry has probably been my favorite for a few years now; I love working with the sweet girls and learning about the reproductive management on dairy farms. The Australian dairy industry is vastly different from the North America one so that has been difficult to wrap my mind around!

That’s it for now, I’m out for some fun this weekend after a long couple of weeks of studying/cramming!

A group of us hanging out and learning how ECGs work and how to read the traces to tell us information on heart disease.

A group of us hanging out and learning how ECGs work and how to read the traces to tell us information on heart disease.