Real Tech, Real Efficiency Gains
September 20, 2020
Despite extensive use of technology around his farm, Chris Weaver does not consider himself an early adopter. “A new technology comes out and some people will jump right into it. I’ll probably wait six months,” he says.
While he might not be the first in line to try new technology, he has always been drawn to computers. When Weaver and his dad started their home farm in 1998, he saw a need to make management more efficient, especially since the farm focuses on fluid and powdered milk markets. “We want people to be proud, not only of the quality of our milk, but of how we care for our animals, our employees and the environment,” he says.
They turned to technology to make that happen.
Today, Bridgewater Dairy in Montpelier, Ohio, uses a host of technology and software to keep employees and cows in tune. “I started by using spreadsheets to track everything, and it was just frustrating managing them nonstop,” Weaver says. “The big change came with feed management software and having a computer that could remotely communicate with a tractor.”
Weaver’s journey to digitize the family’s dairy operation wouldn’t be possible without basic, yet reliable, internet connectivity, which is a great place to start, says Brent Raeth of CatchMark Technologies. “For all of your systems to work as they’re supposed to, it’s crucial to have a properly networked internet connection,” he says.
Weaver hired CatchMark to evaluate their network and improve internet service across their farms. That included converting a CB radio tower to Wi-Fi. While Weaver is adept with computers and networking, he now works with Raeth’s firm to manage his technology needs.
“Since we have multiple computers on multiple sites now, I work with the IT company to maintain a server and manage our security,” he says. “I enjoyed doing it, but it’s better for them to handle because they’re capable of doing higher-level security.”
Cameras Provide an Extra Set of Eyes 24/7
In 2019, Weaver updated the camera system on both dairies, which included going from three to five cameras on each site to 20 to 30 cameras per site. “Typical dairies want cameras in the maternity and parlor areas, the time clock/break room areas, fuel points and maybe one in the shop,” Raeth says. “If you want to go minimalistic, I recommend at least eight to 12 cameras, which would cost an estimated $3,000 to $5,000.”
Duarte Diaz, a dairy Extension specialist in Arizona, recommends cameras in protocol-intensive areas, such as milking parlors, in secure areas, such as around bulk tanks and medicine storage, and in inefficient areas.
“Cameras could help you look at how traffic gets in and out of the facility and why there might potentially be bottlenecks,” Diaz says. “For example, maybe one tractor needs to get out before the other gets in.”
Weaver primarily uses the video system to spot-check problems and estimates he can watch an entire night’s video in 45 minutes. He has the capacity to store videos for approximately 30 days but typically maintains footage for 15 days.
“We’ve found the cameras are a great tool for us to review employees,” he says. “An employee might say ‘Hey, you need to watch the camera at this time.’ So we watch the camera at that time, find out what was going on and confront the person by saying we saw it on the camera. It creates anonymity for other people.”
Learning to use computers and other farm technology is a requirement to hold certain positions at Bridgewater Dairy. “We have roughly three employees who are really good with computers,” he says. “While many employees don’t want to learn a lot, most of them will learn to do basic tasks on the computer.”
When training employees how to use new technology, Weaver says it’s important to keep in mind there are multiple reasons a team member is slow to learn. Maybe their formal education was limited or they haven’t been around computers much.
“There’s always a couple [of team members] who we can't [teach],” he says. “It's really about saying this is an upgrade in position, so if you can't do this job it isn’t a fit for you.”
Finding team members who are savvy with technology is becoming easier as the next generation, who is used to having smartphones, joins the workforce, Weaver says.
Despite his affinity for technology, Weaver says robots aren’t something he’s going to implement anytime soon. “Two to three years ago I was short on labor and considered making the switch to robots,” he says. Upon further investigation and number crunching, he decided the cost to convert wouldn’t pencil out at the time. “Labor is still pretty cheap and fairly available. There's a lot of controversy about whether or not robots are the way to go right now on medium-sized herds because labor is still pretty inexpensive.”
Still, it’s hard to believe his love for efficiency and technology won’t someday result in an investment in a robotic system on his dairy.