A Vel’Phone® rests in a calving area where it previously alerted the dairyman that calving was imminent.
A Vel’Phone® rests in a calving area where it previously alerted the dairyman that calving was imminent.
Editor's note: The following article appeared in the September issue of Dairy Herd Management.
New York dairyman John Balbian doesn’t mind being rousted from his bed by a cell phone alarm in the middle of the night. In fact, he welcomes it, because it means one of his cows is about to deliver a calf.
Balbian and his six employees at Ashwood Dairy near Amsterdam, N.Y., are on the front edge of what soon may become the latest mainstream technology on U.S. dairy farms: individual-cow maternity monitoring.
A new way to manage calving
Last year, 200 cows at Ashwood Dairy began using an experimental prototype of Vel’Phone®, a calving detection system developed by French manufacturer Medria (www.medria.fr). The system uses individual-cow, thermometer-equipped boluses inserted intervaginally in close-up cows and heifers, typically about a week before their anticipated due date. The events that follow include:
1. An alert is sent via text message, identifying the activated bolus and the time and date it was inserted. Text messages can be sent to up to five pre-programmed cell-phone numbers.
2. The thermometer detects a significant drop in temperature, a telltale sign labor and delivery are imminent within about 48 hours. A text message is sent.
3. Another text message is sent when the animal’s water breaks and the bolus is expelled. This message can be programmed to be sent immediately upon expulsion, or with a delay of up to two hours, allowing for a period of unassisted, natural laboring.
Data is transmitted via a transponder box installed on the farm, which Balbian compares in size to a scale head on a TMR mixer. While a computer interface to record data is possible, one of the features Balbian likes best is its cell-based platform. “We have terrible Internet reception here on the farm, so any web-based technology would be highly unreliable,” he said.
When Balbian receives the first alert (48-hour message) notifying him labor is about to begin, he locates the animal and moves her to the farm’s calving facility. The ability to streamline maternity-pen stocking has been a tremendous benefit. “It eliminates a lot of overcrowding in the maternity area, which is good for both the cows and the calves,” he said. “Before we had this system, we would crowd in every animal that had even a remote chance of calving. That can create its own set of problems.”
Balbian recalled a two-week stretch last February, when morning temperatures never inched above zero, and daily highs never reached 20 degrees. While diligent about getting up to check on calvings, he knows he and his employees would have missed some on those brutally cold evenings without the alerts. “You may have a DOA at 5 a.m., but that calf was born alive in the middle of the night,” he said. “Knowing precisely when an animal is calving allows us to assist when necessary, and get every newborn calf into a warming box as quickly as possible.”
The Ashwood Dairy team prefers to insert boluses when cows are moved from the far-off to close-up dry pen, at about three weeks before calving. “We prefer not to handle cows in the week before their due date, and we are more successful at catching cows that freshen early, such as those carrying twins,” Balbian said.
Emmanuel Mounier, general manager, partner and co-founder of Medria, said the company is awaiting Federal Communications Commission approval – possibly by the end of 2015 – before Vel’Phone is commercially available in the U.S. The system is already used in more than 5,000 cattle herds in Europe, with a few using prototypes in Canada.
Vel’Phone is one component of a package of activity-monitoring tools for heat detection, feeding behavior (rumination and ingestion) and rumen temperature (health and water intake). It can be used alone or in conjunction with any or all of these other features.
Balbian said the tools are valuable not only from a production standpoint, but in terms of animal welfare as well. “The data from these systems shows how well the cows are performing and how comfortable they are,” he said. 
On-farm research
Another U.S. entity evaluating Vel’Phone is the University of Kentucky (UK), where Dr. Jeffrey Bewley leads research efforts specializing in precision dairy technology, and performs ongoing studies on new technologies with his team.
Pre-veterinary student Megan Hardy recently completed a study of 95 cows in which a vaginal bolus was administered 10 to 13 days before their expected due date. Data from about two-thirds of those cows were included in the final analysis.
Hardy found 58% of the initial temperature-drop alerts fell within the 48-hour pre-calving window, while another 32% of signals were issued more than 48 hours before the cows actually calved. The final 10% issued no signal. Vel’Phone expulsion alerts shortly before calving occurred 87% of the time.
As Hardy presents the research to dairy audiences today, one of the main concerns she hears is whether the device is difficult to administer, and/or uncomfortable for the animal. “Administration was similar to installing a CIDR, and we did find it easier when animals were constrained in a chute versus headlocks,” said Hardy. “We experienced no problems with animals retaining the Vel’Phone units once they were installed, and neither cows nor first-calf heifers displayed any long-term discomfort after administration.”
Both Hardy and Balbian said the expelled boluses are easy to retrieve after calving, because animals usually are in a confined space, and each unit also is equipped with a locator if necessary. Vel’Phone thermometer units are sanitized and reused, with an expected lifespan of five to six years. The plastic “spider” apparatuses holding them in place also are reusable, but might need to be replaced more often.
Options and investments
UK researcher Matthew Borchers has explored calving detection and how it might be incorporated into other, existing activity monitoring systems. He said cows exhibit a number of research-proven behaviors shortly before giving birth, including:
• a significant drop in body temperature
• increased lying and standing events
• increased tail movements
• decreased rumination.
Borchers pointed out a stand-alone system, Moocall (www.moocallsensors.com), developed in Ireland and already available in the U.S., utilizes a tailhead mounted device and records tail movements. When activity reaches a certain level of intensity over a period of time, a text message is transmitted, at an average of about one hour before calving.
The researcher believes estrus and health behavior monitors have the potential to incorporate calving-detection metrics, if they automatically transmit data at regular intervals throughout the day. Parturition detection also is common in managing foaling horses, and Borchers said he would not be surprised to see some of those equine technologies migrate over to the bovine world.
At the most basic level, he suggested many farms could benefit simply from installing closed-circuit observation cameras, many of which now can transmit images for live cell-phone viewing, and “can be picked up for the cost of about one bull calf.”  
Up-front investment in the Moocall system depends on the number of monitors purchased, but starts at $299 per unit, plus an annual data and support fee of $136 after the first year. The manufacturer recommends one unit per 40 animals in a herd. 
A Vel’Phone system includes initial investment of $4,500 in a transponder (one transponder supports all the Medria services). Each temperature bolus costs about $125, with one bolus recommended for every 20 cows in the herd. Each bolus lasts at least five years.
Balbian has calculated his cost to be about $3 per calf.
Borchers believes any system promoting attentiveness to animals giving birth is valuable not only from a personnel standpoint, but also in terms of animal welfare. He thinks adoption of calving detection systems will grow, and envisions dairies building protocols based around the alerts. “It is really helpful to know when labor started, so we have a better idea of when to assist, and when to hold back and let the cow do the work herself,” he said.
As with almost any precision dairy technology, he believes there’s still an important human element necessary to maximize the value of calving detection tools. “I think it still takes a really good cow person to use the information, and be present and skilled in the maternity barn,” Borchers said. “No technology will make a good manager out of a poor one.”