Coping with collars

A series of field days at farms in Southland and South Otago showed farmers the finer points of using cow wearables. By Karen Trebilcock.

Allflex collars were put on Mike Souness’ 600 cows as they came back from wintering last year and, although he admits he will benefit from them more this coming season, they have already proved their worth.

On the Kaitangata farm in South Otago, where he’s a lower order sharemilker, it allowed him to change from a mix of AI and bulls to no-bull mating using sexed and short-gestation semen which will tighten his calving spread to eight weeks.

Downer cows went from more than 100 to just five.

He hosted one of six field days in the last two weeks of February in Southland and South Otago which covered a variety of cow wearables such as CowManager, Allflex and Halter with DairyNZ wanting to “get away from a sales pitch”, extension partner for DairyNZ Eastern Southland Keely Buckingham said.

“We wanted farmers to connect with each other to talk about the pros and cons of wearables,” she said.

Most of the field days had a mix of farmers who were using wearables or were thinking about it, to one where no one had them.

Vets Daniel Cragg from VetSouth and Bevan Topham from Clutha Vets were on hand at the Kaitangata field day to explain how they were using the collar information.

Mike said the decision to put collars on cows was to make life easier in late spring when he was busy with getting winter crops in the ground, making baleage and silage as well as having to pick cows for mating.

“It means I now don’t have to pick cows and lets me focus on the other jobs.”

It was made easier with a special pricing deal offered by Allflex.

But it wasn’t just Mike using the collar data. His vet was able to use the premating heat information for designing a PG programme for the herd.

“PG programmes rely on very accurate heat recording and if that isn’t done well the PG doesn’t work very well. The collars took all the guesswork out of it,” Daniel said.

With the change from using AI and bulls, to no bulls, Mike’s empties only went up by 1%.

There was no tail painting and no one checked to see if the collars were picking up the heats correctly.

“We chucked ourselves into the deep end,” Mike said.

“We had a few training days with Allflex, which we then forgot everything from, and we had a manual, which we never got around to reading.”

It meant he was often on the phone with the support services, something he doesn’t think he’ll need to do this coming spring.

“I think if we had put the collars on in the autumn, so we had some experience at what we were looking at, all the information that was coming through on the screen, it would have helped.

“We can’t use the collars at the wintering block because there’s no power and cellphone coverage isn’t good but if we had used them in the autumn and got used to looking at the rumination and the health alerts, it would have made it a lot easier in the spring.”

He’s grumpy the Allflex data doesn’t show on the Protrack screen in the dairy as he would like, and it doesn’t connect with MINDA as well as it could. He’s hopeful these changes will be made soon.

His neighbour Mat Korteweg, who has had the Allflex collars for several seasons, said he tells people if they can’t make changes to their systems, then don’t invest in wearables.

“Spend the money on extra supplements instead. You’ll see more benefits.

“But if you can make changes then go for it.”

Information from the collars helps him transitioning cows better at calving from different feeds and drafting out those ready for twice-a-day milking.

“I use the collars mostly for feeding. Not having to pick cows at mating for AI is just an extra benefit.”

Daniel said the collars measured rumination times in minutes per day and farmers should aim for the mid to high 400s to mid-500s.

Rumination could be watched in real time and also as a per-day figure for individual cows, groups and the whole herd.

“Our springers come off winter crop three weeks before they are due to calve and we’ve found at that time fresh grass is like a poison to them,” Mat said.

“We now keep our springers in the herd home on baleage, hay and whatever grain mix they are going to get at milking. When they calve we give them grass but we keep up the baleage until their stomachs can handle it.

“By doing that we don’t see rumination figures drop. We don’t get milk fever and we save about 30 hectares of grass.

“After calving we set a parameter of a rolling average of three days at a rumination level and Protrack drafts out those cows from the once-a-day to the twice-a-day mob when that parameter is reached. We don’t have to do a thing.”

Daniel said farmers in the area without wearables struggled with putting cows into the twice-a-day mob following calving at the right time.

“Some farmers milk everything once-a-day until the end of August, while others wait until they get enough to form two herds.

“It can get really complicated for people without collars having multiple herds and drafting every few days.”

Mat said he did not rely solely on the Allflex rumination figures, checking each cow didn’t look “hollow” before starting milking it twice a day.

“On a day when your whole herd rumination drops, then you’ll also see what your tanker picks up drops too, so you can go back and see what you fed them and work out what went wrong.

“These cows are bred to pump out milk and when they’re pumping out 2.5kg milksolids (MS)/day it’s pretty crucial to get their feeding right or things can go wrong very quickly.”

Bevan said it was interesting to watch the rumination figures when cows were at the dairy waiting to be milked.

“Especially the heifers. They can stop ruminating completely while they’re standing there if they’re mixed in with the older cows.

“It just shows you how hard it is for them to socialise.”

Daniel said rumination figures were important but also farmers should work out the energy the cows were getting.

“Cows ruminate more when there is a lot of fibre in their diet. It doesn’t mean they are getting enough energy.

“What the collars are showing is when the transition from one feed to another, from baleage to lush spring grass, isn’t working. Or when the cow has stopped eating for another reason.”

Both Mat and Mike now offer silage or baleage to cows post-calving along with grass, until the rumen microbiology is ready to utilise only fresh grass.

“It can be a hard conversation with the farm owner why you’re feeding out as you lock up paddocks for silage,” Mike said.


“The collars are accurate, but they also make mistakes,” warns vet Daniel Cragg.

“We’ll be scanning and the data shows she was inseminated at her first heat, but then she had another heat later, after mating ended, so she shouldn’t be pregnant.

“But she was.

“It’s because there are a percentage of cows which will have heats even though they’re pregnant. It’s just part of their normal hormonal cycle.”

He advised farmers to only AI on high heat scores after the first round and still scan early to pick up anoestrus cows.

“We had 30 to 40 cows show up one day with heat notifications but we’d long finished AI,” Mike said. “We were worried these cows had all of a sudden slipped or something else had happened.

“Then we worked out it was the day we started using the silage wagon. They’d just been running around chasing it. They were still pregnant.”

Daniel said he had gone to a farm with collars to check 30 empty cows about to go on the truck. The collars had said all 30 were empty.

“Six of them were pregnant.”


“We’re getting a lot of calls from farmers with the wearables saying they’ve got health alerts but they can’t see anything wrong with the cow,” vet Daniel Cragg says.

“Recently I went to one farm and the cow was fine. There was nothing wrong with it except for the health alert. Two days later it developed woody tongue.”

Vet Bevan Tophan had a similar story.

“It had a fever, but I couldn’t see anything else wrong. I gave it antibiotics and then monitored the information from the collar and she came right. I still don’t know what was wrong but she’s fine now.

“There are other things going on too with the health alerts. With the snow last spring, some of the cows stopped eating. They just stood in the paddock with their backs to the weather and didn’t eat, while some cows did eat.

“The ones that didn’t eat came up as health alerts. They just couldn’t handle the weather.”

He’s also saved several cows with twisted guts which would have died if the collars had not alerted the farmers.

Daniel said vets were still learning how to use the technology and urged farmers to share the data with their vets.

“It’s really exciting to wake up in the morning and see there are no health alerts,” Mat Korteweg said.