Cows’ bling helps in herd management

posted Sept. 11, 2017 8:04 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Carrie Mess

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Imagine that you had $20,000 to spend.

Imagine you were going to spend that $20,000 on jewelry. What would you buy? Platinum or gold? Diamonds? Rubies? Maybe a tiara? Maybe a necklace?

Daydreams are nice, huh? Who has $20,000 to drop on jewelry?

We did exactly that two and a half years ago. We spent $20,000 on jewelry ... for our cows.

And the girls didn’t even get diamonds.

By now you may be thoroughly confused. Welcome to my life.

While our cows did in fact get necklaces, they aren’t your typical jewelry.

At the start of 2014, our farm purchased a system that monitors both activity and rumination on our cows. The system, made by SCR and sold to us by Select Sires, is called Heat Time. What does that actually mean? It means our cows now wear necklaces that help us keep them healthy and lets us know when they are ready to be bred.

I’ll break it down into two parts to explain further.

The necklace tracks activity. With the same principle as a Fitbit, cows wearing collars have their steps counted each day. This has two purposes. First, if a cow isn’t feeling well or has a sore foot, she isn’t going to move around as much as normal. Second, if a cow is in heat, meaning she is at the point in her estrus cycle where she is receptive to being bred, she tends to be a lot more active. You know, you can’t just stand still and expect love to come find you, sometimes you have to go search for it.

The necklace also tracks rumination. Rumination is the fancy word for chewing cud. Cud is the unfancy word for regurgitated feed. When a cow eats, her feed goes into her stomach, which unlike humans has four compartments. As part of her normal digestion, she will eat a bunch of feed and then later bring up parts of that feed and rechew it before it goes on to be even further digested. In a nutshell, this is why cows can take foods that humans can’t get any nutritional value out of and grow to be 1,500 pounds.

The necklace has a microphone that picks up the sound of the cow bringing up her cud. If a cow isn’t feeling well, one of the first things that happens is she slows down on chewing her cud. I personally am really good at spotting a cow who isn’t feeling great, but the necklace is even better at catching a cow not feeling well. Rumination also helps us know when a cow is in heat, because when a cow is looking for love, she tends to not eat or chew cud as much.

The necklaces track this data via magic and send it to a box in the front of our barn where we can view the data. There are several different types of systems that track activity and rumination and many of them actually send this data right to your phone, but our Internet sucks (I’m looking at you, Frontier) and that’s not an option for us.

When a cow shows that she is either in heat or isn’t feeling well, an alert will pop up on the screen in our barn and we know to check it out.

When we purchased our system we saved ourselves a little cash by not buying every cow a necklace. Right now our cows wear their necklaces from a few weeks before they calve until after they are confirmed pregnant. We have had a few instances where we wished that a cow still had a collar on so we would have caught an issue sooner. So once the milk price goes up a little, we will be spending more to make sure every cow has her own necklace.

Activity and rumination monitoring together has done a lot for our herd. Not only has it helped us identify sick cows right away, our herd’s pregnancy rate has increased about 3 percent (which is a lot when you’re talking pregnancy rates in cattle) because we’ve been able to catch more cows in heat. It has also confirmed my suspicion that our cows like to get their freak on in the middle of the night when we aren’t in the barns.

So now you know a little more about cow jewelry. Don’t you feel smarter?

Carrie Mess is a dairy farmer, blogger, speaker and advocate for agriculture from Lake Mills. She farms in partnership with her husband, Patrick, and his parents on their 100-cow dairy. Her blogs can be found at

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