The Western Kentucky University Dairy Program is using its SmartHolstein Lab to integrate cutting-edge technology into the dairy industry. Made possible by grants from the National Holstein Association and the Kentucky Agriculture Development Fund, the SmartHolstein Lab uses new technology for demonstration, education and research advancements.
Located at WKU’s 800-acre Agriculture and Research Education Center in Bowling Green, the SmartHolstein Lab is part of the only dairy program in the world that utilizes such a wide variety of working technologies, offering a centralized site where technology companies and farmers can work together to improve the dairy industry.
The WKU Dairy Program and the SmartHolstein Lab afford over 30 industry partners the opportunity to test their products on an operational farm before putting them on the market. All the data and research results are presented back to the partners to help improve their products, allowing them to learn about both their software and the herd.
“As the world becomes more reliant on technologies, the WKU Dairy will be influential in the future of the dairy industry,” said Adam Blessinger, WKU Dairy Farm Manager.
Among the technologies being used at the SmartHolstein Lab are products that monitor the health of the animals. Each cow wears an activity tracker, similar to a smart watch, that tracks how many steps they take and how long they lie down every day. Tracking the normal activity of each cow allows farmers to monitor when an animal is exhibiting abnormal behavior, which could indicate illness or other health issues.
“We are the guinea pigs in many ways,” said Sabrina Blair, a first-year graduate student in WKU’s Department of Agriculture and Food Science. “We’re learning about the intricate details that influence our cows and how we, as caretakers, can change our practices in very small ways to ensure the health and well-being of our herd.”
Other technologies are used to increase the comfort of the cows, which increases overall milk production. Over the past couple of years, it has been found that providing cows with comfort-adding measures has increased milk production by an astounding 8,000 pounds. The addition of misters, foot baths and mattresses are among some of the pampering technologies used to make the cows comfortable and relaxed.
“The most rewarding thing is seeing the cows’ production increase,” said Miranda Maestle, a second-year graduate student who has worked at the SmartHolstein Lab for three years. “I’ve helped birth a lot of calves and seeing them become a momma and join the milkers in an uneventful and stress-free way is always nice to see.”
As a student worker, Maestle has first-hand experience in operating the SmartHolstein Lab’s equipment. She has also had the opportunity to learn how to milk cows as efficiently as possible, give vaccinations to the animals and deliver calves. She’s even become certified to artificially inseminate the cows.
Blessinger adds that many students will take the skills and knowledge they learn at the Lab to careers in the industry or to their personal farms. Their experience with emerging technologies will increase their competitiveness with job placements.
“I get to see students learn and grow as they come through the WKU Agriculture Department. I have seen students who aren’t agriculture students and have never been around large animals fall in love with the Dairy,” said Blessinger. “Hopefully some of these students will become the next leaders in creating new dairy technologies that the Lab can showcase in the future.”
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