Making better use of data

Data collection is getting easier and can have real value onfarm, if you know how to use it. Andrew Cochrane writes.

In Livestock8 Minutes

Data collection is getting easier and can have real value onfarm, if you know how to use it. Andrew Cochrane writes.

THE DATA PEOPLE COLLECT on farms always interests me. I have clients who have recorded 40 years of weather data in a notebook and can tell me exact details about the flood of 1984. Others, more tech savvy, have 15 years of Microsoft excel files detailing the production of every stock class and paddock on their property. Is this data useful? Maybe, maybe not. The value of data is only realised if it is utilised and acted upon – otherwise it is just a record that future generations will eventually find, smile at and dispose of.

At the opposite end of the scale, we have clients who collect minimal data, don’t pregnancy test, don’t weigh stock, don’t have the time, don’t have the means. Some of these farmers don’t fully appreciate the value this data could add to their operation.

Fortunately, as technology improves, data is getting easier, faster and cheaper to collect. The type of data we can collect is expanding too. Take pregnancy testing as an example. It wasn’t that long ago that this was done by the vet manually, shoulder deep in the cow and predominantly only providing a result of pregnancy or not. This was physically demanding work and relatively slow. Now this can be done reasonably comfortably at 150 an hour (with the right facilities) and data can include foetal ageing to five-day intervals and identification of twins.

This data can be used to identify cows requiring special treatment, or those conceived to a certain sire or AI. It can also allow the formation of wintering mobs based on calving date and aid in any investigation into fertility problems or bull failure. Many farmers (particularly studs) are also collecting data on frame size, structural assessment and temperament, which can all be done ‘cow side’ for little cost. This data can all be used to assist in the selection of replacements and/or the decision around what to cull. Going further, DNA parentage and genome sequencing, along with measurements of muscle and fat, can also be collected and recorded, adding accuracy to breeding values for studs.

Notebook no more

The use of electronic tags has simplified data collection further and the days of pen and paper have given way to wands and computers. But whilst the younger generation has certainly adopted this quickly, there are still farmers who prefer the tangible comfort of handwritten notes. The fear of data being lost is the main reason for not having full trust in technology, because notebooks never got lost, right?

Whilst errors can happen and tags can be lost, EID and wand technology has generally been a great advancement in the collection and storage of data. It has definitely been an improvement on trying to read the tag of a cow that is intent on keeping her head buried under the cow in front of her – assuming you can reach her with the wand!

As previously mentioned, data is no more than a record unless it is acted upon and utilised. Identifying second-cycle cows at pregnancy testing is simple data to collect, but the power in this information is then using it to draft those cows into a separate mob, keeping them on their winter ration for three weeks longer than the early cows. This helps to conserve feed for spring. It ensures feed saved for calving is reserved only for those that will soon need it. Equally, body condition score is valuable data to collect, but its true value is realised when it is used to prioritise feed to light cows. This can be done at weaning, set-stocking and at calf marking to ensure the best quality feed is going to those that need it most.

There is a large amount of data that can be collected and used on the farm to aid decision making, and this isn’t limited to stud farms. We have commercial beef clients who are recording cows that wean a below average calf – this can be based on weight alone, can include information on birth date (and therefore growth rate) or be linked back as a percentage of the cows liveweight. This data is then used to assist cull decisions. These cows go into a B mob initially and if they fail to produce a decent calf a second time they are gone. With time, this results in a more efficient and productive herd, culling out the under performers with accurate data to support it.

The EBV suite

The obvious other suite of data to improve productivity and efficiency, one that most commercial beef farmers are already using, is the estimated breeding values (EBVs) of the bulls we use. This data has been shown time and again to improve the performance of a herd when used appropriately.

Now, with genomic technology becoming more readily available, it is also possible to test your heifer replacements as another tool to improve the genetic merit of your herd. This genomic data can be used to aid selection of replacements, assist culling decisions and increase the production and efficiency of your herd.

The breadth of data that can be collected can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Start by focusing on what you can collect and influence easily on farm – weights of young stock, body condition score, etc. Consider what data you could use to aid decision making, whether it be wintering mobs, replacement selection or culling decisions. Farming smarter and making the most of the resources available to you may be easier than you think.