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Kentucky hosts conference and expo on precision dairy farming

 

Kentucky Farm Bureau

 

LOUISVILLE - The recent Conference and Expo on Precision Dairy Farming, held in Kentucky for the first time, brought dairy producers from across the world together to share information, discuss challenges and move the industry forward in a positive way.

 

Stacy Sidebottom, a dairyman from Green County, participated in a panel discussion during the conference. His 600-acre family farm supports 250 head of dairy cattle, a large number for Kentucky dairies and the largest in his county.

“We’ve grown into this; started small but have kept moving our way up,” he said.

Moving his way up was not something inherited by Sidebottom, although he is a second-generation farmer. He and his father started in the dairy business together.

“We started with 30 cows and went to 50 then 100. With all those changes and getting larger, it gave me the opportunity to hire additional help,” he said.

With that help and growth in the herd, Sidebottom said, the family was able to stay on the farm and have more time together.

From a precision ag standpoint, Sidebottom said there are a lot of little things that have come about over the last decade to make dairy operations more efficient as opposed to one huge innovation.

“In talking to other producers, they feel like the industry will be fully automated in another 10 years. I don’t know if it will happen then, but it has been interesting so far,” he said.

In a tight bottom-line environment, dairy producers are looking at all reasonable efforts to make their operations more sustainable. Sidebottom notes that the margins are thin and producers have to do all they can do to make it work.

The conference featured many industry experts to talk about just that as it relates to precision ag methods. Dr. Jeffrey Bewley, associate Extension professor at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, was instrumental in bringing the conference to the state. He said precision dairy is relatively new, and technology is changing very rapidly.

“We feel like there is a need to get the players around the world in a room together talking about these things so we can get to the point where we can continue to improve not only what data is available to dairy producers but how they actually turn that data into meaningful management with changes at the farm level,” said Bewley.

He pointed out the dairy industry is a global one and the competition comes not only at the state and national levels but from dairy operations around the world. The conference proved to be a good place to learn from those operations.

“Part of this is making sure we are on a level playing field with the competition but also, technology has taken off a lot faster in other parts of the world, and we’re really behind on what has been adopted here in the U.S.,” said Bewley. “There’s much that we can learn from what [producers in other countries] have learned so we don’t repeat some of the mistakes that they’ve made.”

Bewley said much work in the area of precision dairy has been done in Kentucky over the last nine years, and it was exciting to see this conference make its way to the Commonwealth and recognize those accomplishments. But even with all the technology developed over the past several years, he pointed out it doesn’t necessarily mean that all dairy producers need to be maximizing the precision dairy movement to be sustainable.

“I don’t think we are to that point yet. I think there are other ways to accomplish those same goals,” he said. “As we move forward, it may be something producers need to do to be competitive, but technologies aren’t for everyone. It may be just not having enough funds to invest in new technology two and a half years into low milk prices. But we can still do a good job just by watching cows. We have viable ways of getting things done outside of technology, and there are a lot of different roads to get to the same endpoint. Each farmer has to find which works best for them.”

Bewley admits that new technologies can often pick up on things that can’t be discovered simply by watching each cow, and often these technologies serve as an extra set of eyes to the farmer who doesn’t have time to literally watch his or her animals 24 hours a day.

 

From an international perspective, Joao Costa, incoming UK assistant professor at the university’s dairy unit, brings a global view to the state’s dairy industry.

Costa, who is from Brazil and did much of his training in Canada, began to work in the dairy industry as an undergraduate, including precision dairy research. He said there are similarities in the dairy business, be they successes or challenges, all over the world.

“In the last 20 years, dairies have become very similar, and with the precision dairy, I think it’s technology that works across the board in most every type of system,” said Costa. “The integration of data in our system is something that is an opportunity across the world.”

He also said bringing dairy producers to this conference is fundamental in achieving the goal of increasing the efficiency of dairy farmers everywhere.

This year’s conference was organized by UK and the University of Minnesota.