RIRIE — The dairy cattle grazing against a backdrop of the Heise hills and budding cottonwood trees resemble a pastoral scene from years gone by.
But tiny radio frequency identification ear tags link these cows to a revolution in dairy management — part of a pasture-to-parlor technology system adopted by Nelson Dairy two years ago.
The dairy was established by Flint and Merri Sue Nelson in the mid-1980s. Their son, Talon, 32, is a partner in the 240-cow and 70-acre farming operation near Heise.
The Nelsons contract milk for a market niche requiring their stock to have pasture access, and Talon believes it contributes to animal health. Furthermore, investing in a robotic milking system two years ago has boosted production by about 12% and enabled them to shift labor dollars from a milker to part-time farm help.
Small family dairies, like the Nelson’s, are shrinking in number, as Idaho follows a national trend toward having more cattle on fewer farms. Idaho’s state herd is estimated at 591,723, with fewer than half of the operations having 500 cows or less. The average number of cows per dairy in Eastern Idaho is 318.
“There are huge dairies that say they’re family owned but don’t have owners who actually do day-to-day work,” Talon said. “We do everything, my dad and I and a part-time guy. It’s a lot of work but I like that we’re producing something that matters and doing something that matters — producing food. Being small isn’t easy, but we have a lifestyle and a business that are important to us.”
Hard work, efficiency and innovation are the keys to survival for producers lacking the economies of scale of the mega-dairies in the Magic Valley. The Nelsons raise their own heifers, cross-breeding about 25% of the foundation Holstein herd to bolster milk component (protein and butter fat) and physical attributes. Using artificial insemination, they’ve integrated genetics from Brown Swiss and Jersey and more recently added Swedish Red and Montbéliarde.
Talon explains that Robotic Milking Systems is a voluntary milking approach that allows cows to set their own milking schedule. The cow’s RFID tag enables the robot to electronically identify her and then track and report on her health, diet and milk production.
The robot gives each cow “milking permission” based on her individual production and frequency needs (high volume early lactation cows may be milked several times a day while lower production and late lactation cows will come in less frequently).
The robot lets the cow into a stall in the parlor and uses lasers to locate and clean her teats, then attach the milking cups. During milking, cows receive a pelleted nutritional supplement. As milk is collected, the system transmits data to Talon’s office computer. After the milking process, the cow is released and the milk is filtered and stored in a temperature-controlled bulk tank for collection by a creamery in Blackfoot. The parlor is busy 24 hours a day, and the system is on track to pay for itself.
Using data from the robotic system, Talon can monitor individual cow production by quarter, detect early stage health issues sooner, improve reproductive efficiency and make ration adjustments. This information is also helpful to the Nelson’s veterinarian, Dr. Paul Martin, and nutritionist, Talon’s brother Bron Nelson.
The RMS sends “alerts” to Talon’s phone and computer if there is an issue with the equipment or a cow needs special attention.
“There was definitely a learning curve for us, and for the cows, when we started this,” he said.
Talon now does most of the Nelson’s equipment and software troubleshooting and maintenance.
Outside the parlor, the electronic overlay is part of a guided flow system by which the cows activate gates to pasture, loafing barns, feed bunks and their return to the parlor. As well as the RFID tag, each animal in the milking herd wears a blue electronic activity monitor collar and a yellow farm identification number. The activity monitor feeds data to Talon’s computer for additional animal health monitoring.
Many youth and college groups visit the dairy each year, and Talon enjoys the opportunity to educate young people about the industry and the Nelson’s operation.
“Most are really curious about the robotic milkers,” Talon said.
But he hopes they’re also seeing that small family operations can survive.
Talon and his wife, Amber, live at the dairy with their family and Talon’s parents. His oldest daughter, age 8, is learning responsibility by feeding bottle calves and is among the next generation of Nelsons growing up with ties to the land, livestock, agriculture and technology.