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Tracking moo-vement: Cow activity trackers provide benefits for herd, farm operators

Neither Pam Selz-Pralle nor her husband, Scott Pralle, wears a Fitbit on their wrist to track their activity while working on their farm, Selz-Pralle Dairy.

But their cows do.

To be more accurate, cows among the dairy’s herd of 500 wear rumination and activity monitors around their neck, not the name-brand devices many people use to track everything from step count to heart rate.

While the human and bovine devices have their differences, “Fitbits for cows” does show the health and wellness craze is also present in the dairy industry, Selz-Pralle said.

Tracking cow “moo-vement” isn’t exactly new, Selz-Pralle said. Pedometers, which measure step count only, for cows have been around since the 1970s.

But technology has grown significantly more advanced since then, and Selz-Pralle said that, in their area, they were among the early adopters of the newer rumination and activity monitors when they started using the technology six years ago.

The prices for the cow activity monitors (about $120-$150) are remarkably similar to those of Fitbits to people. But the total investment adds up when trying to track a herd as opposed to a single person.

The cost of an activity tracker can eat away at an already thin margin for dairy cows, but Selz-Pralle says the investment was worth it. For one, the technology helps keep the farm’s cow’s healthy.

“We know that healthy cows make healthy milk,” Selz-Pralle said. Plus, healthier cows are likely to live longer.

The activity trackers transmit signals to a computer program several times a day, creating data that can indicate a cow is sick 24-48 hours before the cow starts showing clinical signs of illness, Selz-Pralle said. Lowered milk production is usually the first sign of an ill cow, she said, but the activity trackers can help show that there’s something off with a cow well before that happens.

That early notice provides a chance to address problems with other treatments, such as probiotics, extra fluids or aspirin, that aren’t as invasive or don’t require antibiotic use.

Selz-Pralle provided data that showed improvements in cow health in their first year using the activity monitors, thanks to being able to detect health problems earlier. Displaced abomasums were down 80%, ketosis was reduced by 65% and drug costs were halved.

Activity trackers can also indicate which cows are likely to be high performers. For example, a typical cow may spend 6-8 hours ruminating a day, while a high performer may spend 10 hours a day chewing its cud, Selz-Pralle said.

Data from Selz-Pralle Dairy’s world-record-holding cow for milk production showed that she ruminated for 10-plus hours a day and wasn’t very active, Selz-Pralle said. Upon examination of the cow’s records, they also found that she had never been treated for anything in her life.

The data from the activity trackers can also assist in monitoring a cow’s fertility cycle, including indicating optimal times for breeding, providing earlier notice prior to calving and helping watch cows post-calving, Selz-Pralle said.

If the activity trackers can help keep cows healthier, that also makes the farm more efficient.

“For us, it saves us labor,” Selz-Pralle said.

Selz-Pralle said she figured that one sick animal adds about half an hour of work to an already 12-hour long day. Any labor that the activity trackers can save — and any useful data they can provide — is also particularly helpful in an industry that has been struggling to find enough skilled laborers.

In addition, the activity trackers have made it easier for Selz-Pralle and her husband, Scott, to take some time away from the farm.

Data from the activity trackers, which Selz-Pralle said her husband refers to as a “backup herdsman,” is also transmitted to Scott’s phone. That means Scott can check in on the herd whenever and from wherever, even during a trip the pair took to New Zealand.

Selz-Pralle said new technology for dairy continues to come down the pipeline, but it’s important that the technology is affordable.

What investments like cow activity monitors — which have become less expensive over time, as is the case for much technology — really boil down to for farmers like Selz-Pralle is animal care.

And as June Dairy Month continues, Selz-Pralle said she wants consumers to know that cow health and milk quality aren’t something they kid about.

“Cows always come first,” Selz-Pralle said.

Farmers want nothing more than to look after their herd, she said.

“We need this new technology to help take care of our animals.”

And to consumers, the farm promises to provide a safe and high-quality product, no matter the time of year.

The odds of rain

We watched the Doppler radar all Sunday morning and early into the afternoon. No rain had fallen, and yet we remained cooped up. Finally, a decision was made. We’d go for a walk. We all needed it. After a final glance at the weather forecast, the odds of rain were about what they’d been all day, maybe all spring. A frustrating number, say, 20 or 30 percent. We laced up our sneakers, locked up, and began walking south, then west.

Years ago, the kids protested this walk as if it was a forced march (it was). These days, there is less bickering. In his newest book, “Freedom,” Sebastian Junger writes: “You know you’re in cadence when the rhythm of everyone’s footsteps coalesces into a long complex tattoo that evolves over hours and bears you along like the current of an invisible river you’ve been seeking your whole life.” I doubt he was describing prolonged treks with two young kids. One of the children sometimes drags behind, protesting. The other prefers to link arms with me as if we were Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in “On the Town.” My wife walks fast. I tend to amble or stroll. Sometimes, miles click by without a car passing us. Other times, it is bicyclists, flashing down the hills at blinding speeds. Once, a coyote.

On this afternoon the drizzle began about a mile and half into the walk, past Butternut Road, past the raucous flock of guinea fowl and near what I assume is a cellphone tower. Just the lightest precipitation. So scant as to hardly darken the macadam. And after months of brittle drought, a welcome drizzle. We walked on, undeterred, though we’d reached a natural turning around point. No, my wife said, let’s keep going, this can’t last.

Down the hill and past the horse barns, past the pond riotous with birdsong, busy with red-winged blackbirds. Into and out of the concrete canyons and skyscrapers of Cleghorn. Over a tiny wooden bridge that spans a no-name creek. Every time I cross the bridge, I inhale deeply: fresh creosote and white pine pitch. Past the site of the now-razed Kitelinger Taxidermy, where a massive albino buck used to “stand” sentinel in the front window. We waved to a family huddled in a garage and seated on folding lawn chairs, drinking beer. An old man waved back. We passed the town hall of Pleasant Valley and the immaculately maintained baseball diamond. Now the sky seemed to brighten and off to the west there were pockets of blue sky. Though, also a significant wall of large gray rain clouds. We pressed on. Past an old barn, a derelict windmill, and a narrow rectangle of a garden known to grow some of the proudest pumpkins around.

We turned onto Evergreen Road. Past a young woman with a half-dozen chickens resting in her lap. Past scattered houses. Newly planted corn. The rain increased just slightly, like a DJ slowly cranking the volume of the music at an intensifying party. No more pockets of blue sky, just gray clouds, and the softest ripple of thunder.

At an undisclosed location along our route, I left the road and moved into the northern ditch. My family has begun teasing me that while I’m no hunter, I’m not a half-bad forager. I did intend to do some foraging. With a walnut-handled Opinel knife I once bought in France, I cut stalk after stalk of asparagus. My son stood on the road and pointed to areas I might explore. We made a good team, even as the drizzle shifted into a light rain that was certainly beginning to soak our shirts.

With my fist full of free ditch asparagus, we finally began our last leg, north, towards our house. The rain was falling as hard as I could remember in many, many months. This was a true spring soaking downpour of the variety so many of us had been yearning for. We were still well over a mile from home with many steep hills yet to climb. We quickened our pace. We began to laugh and tease my wife for her meteorological knowledge, her radar-reading acumen. Our son took off his shirt, pale chest glistening. Our daughter pouted, but there was a smile beneath the pout. The rain was warm, after all.

How many times have I walked that same five-mile circuit? Scanned those same oak forests, corn fields, acres of soybeans, old pastures and wildflowers? That rhombus of rarely-flat country roads? Hundreds of times. If I accumulated all the hours I’d spent on that broken asphalt, it would be days of my life. Well spent days. Days exercising. Days talking to my wife. Days talking to friends. Days listening to podcasts. Days watching birds fly from telephone poles to cattail tips. Days watching deer in the fields. So many of those walks blend into one another, like steps in a marathon. But this walk was different. It was the first time I could remember walking that route in the rain with my family, laughing, rushing to get home to claim that first hot shower. Peering at the heavens for a possible rainbow.

If I had known that our walk would assuredly be rained upon, I would not have left our house. And yet, it was the rain, the rain we’d been avoiding all day, that made that walk among all the other walks through the years, memorable, perhaps unforgettable.

Sitting on our back porch, skin sweaty and rain-slicked, I listened to the rain run down our roof and into the gutters. Listened to the rain bounce off the leaves of a nearby rhubarb plant. What could be more lovely than the sounds of a soft May rain after so many days of unyielding drought? I bent down and plucked a wet mint leaf, popped it into mouth and chewed. Spring.

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Residential pesticide use can affect pollinators, birds

Native plants feeds insects, and insects in turn feed birds, fish and mammals, according to Lynn Markham, UW-Extension land use specialist based at UW-Stevens Point.

“Insects matter in many ways,” Markham said during a UW-Extension webinar on how pesticides affect pollinators and songbirds in yards.

But the use of pesticides in residential settings can negatively impact beneficial insects, including pollinators, such as bees, moths and butterflies.

“Our insect pollinators need need three things to survive,” Markham said. “They need food, they need shelter and they need protection from insecticides.”

Pesticides are one of the four Ps driving the decline of bees, one of the most studied pollinators, Markham said. The other three Ps are pathogens, parasites and poor nutrition.

The general category of pesticides includes insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. Each type can be hazardous to pollinators.

Insecticides designed to kill unwanted insects can also kill or harm beneficial insects, Markham said. Fungicides have the potential to negatively impact bee nutrition, and herbicides can kill the nectar- and pollen-providing flowers pollinators rely on.

“Ideally the pesticides would harm only the target pest and then break down into harmless substances,” Markham said. But that isn’t the case.

Instead pesticides can cling to plants, get into insects and the animals that eat them, be tracked into homes, drift in the air, stick to people applying pesticides and contaminate water, Markham said.

Damage to non-target species caused by insecticides can take 10 to 20 years or more to become fully apparent, Markham said. DDT was banned after decades of use as the pesticide was determined to cause harm, including to bald eagles, whose eggs were made brittle by the chemical, contributing to population decline.

Toxicity of pesticides to birds has decreased over time, something that coincides with lessened use of the insecticide category of organophosphates, Markham said.

But over the same period of time, toxicity of pesticides to pollinators and aquatic invertebrates has significantly increased — linked particularly to use of pyrethroid insecticides around aquatic invertebrates and neonicotinoid insecticides around pollinators.

While it’s hard to say if residential neonicotinoid use is directly having a harmful effect on birds, Markham said, if the use of those pesticides is killing insects, then the birds will have fewer insects to eat.

“Insects and particularly caterpillars that are easy for baby birds to eat ... constitute a substantial part of the diet of many bird species during the breeding season and are indispensable for raising offspring,” Markham said.

“Everything is connected,” she said. “When you exterminate the bugs, you’re actually exterminating the birds as well.”

There are options for people who want to make their residential lawn more hospitable for pollinators, which can in turn support bird populations.

Pavement and mowed lawns don’t provide habitat for pollinators, Markham said.

Pollinators can be helped by having a lawn with diverse plants that bloom throughout the season, she said.

Communitywide initiatives like “No Mow May” can also help provide pollinator habitat, Markham said.

In vegetable gardens, pest control options less harmful to pollinators can include crop rotation, cover crops, row covers and insect traps, such as hanging pails of vinegar combined with sugar and a banana peel, Markham said.

For people specifically looking for mosquito control, more natural options include removing standing water, using fans or screened-in porches, creating spaces for natural predators of mosquitoes, such as bats, swallows, dragonflies and damselflies, or using biological mosquito control products in standing water.

Minimizing use of pesticides and weed and feed products is recommended, but for those who determine that pesticide use is their best option, Markham encouraged careful reading of pesticide labels.

She also said that consumers can and should go beyond labels to examine how damaging a particular pesticide is to pollinators. The National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State University (npic.orst.edu) and University of Massachusetts Extension (tinyurl.com/3h85nnjy) can both provide additional information on if a pesticide ingredient is harmful to pollinators if such information isn’t on the product label.

Banning neonicotinoid use or requiring pesticide labels to include impacts on pollinators are national policy items that could also have benefits, Markham said. Neonicotinoid bans have been introduced at the federal level four times in the last decade but have never passed.

A few states have implemented policies that prohibit consumers from buying neonicotinoid pesticides, while allowing farmers and pesticide applicators to still use the products, Markham said. Some individual communities have also taken steps to limit or eliminate the use of pesticides.

Some food and garden retailers have also taken steps to eliminate or phase out of the use of neonicotinoids in the products they sell, Markham said.