Oct. 17 2012 12:28 AM

    Testing progesterone, LDH, BHB and MUN right in the parlor (or robot) is on its way. What's next?

    by Lucas Sjostrom, Hoard's Dairyman Associate Editor

    I'll admit that I'm a bit of a technology geek. I say "a bit" because I am not a video gamer, computer programmer or owner of the latest iPhone. But unlike some dairy farmers I encounter, I see technology as a golden opportunity rather than a mechanical hindrance on the farm.

    Since I center my editing on equipment and milk quality among other subjects, the parlor is an obvious focus for me. Ten years ago, robotic milking was the exciting subject everyone was talking about. Five years ago, activity monitoring that linked to both heat detection and milk weights by cow were popular. Both are still being talked about on farms around the world. People are considering purchasing one or the other to eliminate labor on the farm. Both will soon be overshadowed by in-line milk sampling and subsequent analysis.

    Milk progesterone analysis allows for detection of pregnancy and finding when cows are in heat. Progesterone levels vary throughout a cow's life cycle. Constant progesterone samples allow us to know when a cow is in heat or pregnant. With in-line progesterone testing, we may be able to eliminate synchronization programs and palpations for pregnancy checking. If that isn't revolutionary, I don't know what is.

    Raymond Nebel, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, described in a 1998 paper how the progesterone milk sampling and analysis process works with eight commercially available kits producers could use on their own (not in-line). Most dairy producers realize that milk progesterone sampling is available today, but the labor needed to use it is one big roadblock to a broader application. The biggest problem with the kits is that you need a large sample size since it is the relative progesterone level that must be measured, not just tracking a single cow's numbers like we can for somatic cell count.

    Three slightly less exciting, but still very exciting, developments to in-line milk testing are recognition of the enzyme LDH (lactate dehydrogenase), BHB (beta hydroxybutyrate), and MUNs (milk urea nitrogen). LDH is correlated very closely with somatic cell counts, giving you an advanced reading on mastitis developments. BHB is a metabolite that will help you find ketotic cows, while MUN can help watch protein levels in your feed. All three can improve cow health and save on feed bills. Again, I would still call these three items revolutionary, just not as revolutionary as their "cousin," the progesterone test.

    At least one company, DeLaval, is betting big on in-line milk sampling through their new Herd Navigator system. It is currently available in Canada and will likely be tested in the U.S. in 2013. Other companies are soon to follow suit, but the main point is that the technology will soon be available.

    This all leads me to ask, what's next? If we can find cows when they're in heat, pregnant or sick as easily as buying an in-line sampler and analyzer, we'll probably spend more research in animal welfare and housing settings. Obviously, the industry has put a big push towards limiting lameness already, but I'm not so sure we can improve upon pasture, compost bedded packs or sand bedding as lying surfaces. But I can't wait to see someone prove me wrong.

    What do you think is next?