6 steps to unravel your farm data

Posted on April 17, 2024 in Dairy Performance
By Katelyn Goldsmith, Vita Plus dairy specialist

Data is abundant on today’s dairy farms.  It can serve as a powerful tool and also be overwhelming at times.  Have you looked at a spreadsheet or report and felt a little lost?  What does this data mean?  What is it telling me?  What do I do with the information?  Following are six steps to unravel your farm’s data and put it to work.

1. Define
Unless you define your objectives, sorting through farm data is like digging through a toolbox without knowing what you’re trying to fix.  Maybe I need a hammer?  Or pliers?  Or electrical tape?  It’s difficult and inefficient to identify the answer if you don’t know what question you’re asking.

For example, many farms track calf average daily gain.  But, if your objective is to reduce treatment costs, it’s probably not the metric that will reveal opportunities to improve.  In this case, a log of calf treatments will be more useful in identifying treatment trends, setting goals for improvement, and implementing management strategies at the right point in the calf’s life.

Take time to define and focus on your target.  What is important to you and your farm?  What are your standards and goals?  What questions do you want answered?  Are there areas of your farm you want to improve?  Are you trying to solve a problem or benchmark against yourself and others?  Answering these questions helps you to define your objectives.  Your objectives then help you sort through and prioritize data that is relevant to what you want to achieve.

2. Consult
Nobody is an expert in everything.  Call in reinforcement from your farm team to help you navigate your data.  This team can include your nutritionist, breeder, veterinarian, agronomist, equipment dealers, and more.  These trusted advisors are trained in specific areas and can help you understand your data and what it means.  They also can advise on what data can help you address your objectives, how to collect your data, and how to interpret your data.

Suppose your herd has seen an unusual increase in incidence of displaced abomasum (DA).  Your nutritionist and veterinarian could provide guidance for helpful data such as when cows are moving into the fresh pen, fresh cow feed intake, and 30-day DA rate.

3. Collect
If the data is not already collected, then build a game plan for how it will be.  Decide who, what, where, when, and how the data will be collected.  Remember, the data collected is only as helpful as how consistently and accurately it is collected.  Discuss your objectives with your farm team that will be collecting the data to determine the best way to implement measuring and recording data into its already established routine.

For example, if your farm is experiencing transition cow health issues, are the issues being recorded?  How are different issues like milk fever or ketosis defined on your farm?  Do all members of your farm team define and identify the issues in the same way?  Are these events entered into your farm management software?  How frequently?

4. Analyze
You sit down at your desk and there it is – a report staring back at you with tons of numbers.  Where do you even start?  What numbers should you care about?  Take a moment to remember your objectives.  Use these as a guide to sift through information.  Start with the big-picture items and work into more detailed data points from there.

For instance, when reviewing data from an automatic milking system, start with big-picture data points such as visits per day and milk per robot.  Then further break down the data into items that affect the big picture, such as milking speed or concentrate consumption.

5. Summarize
After analyzing data, it can feel like your head is swimming with numbers.  It’s helpful to take a moment and organize what you’ve learned.  Pretend you’re giving a summary about the data to a team member.  Could you give them a brief overview of the information and the most important items that you discovered?  What does that mean for the farm and what will we be doing going forward?

Some people find it especially helpful to write or type the summary.  Plotting the data on a graph is especially helpful to visualize data and trends.  For example, plotting your herd’s components over time can really highlight trends, seasonality or issues.

6. Act
Data is interesting to think and talk about, but it is most helpful when it is put into action.  Use your data!  What are we going to change based on the data?  What are we going to keep the same?  What do my employees or team members need to know?  This is another great time to use your farm support team.  They can suggest strategies to act upon the data and move toward your goals.  Use your data to help you determine the path forward.  Continue to monitor and adjust as you move forward.

What does this look like put together in real life?
Imagine Farm ABC is not satisfied with calf performance and defines its objective as evaluating and improving preweaned calf health and growth.  The owners consult their veterinarian and nutritionist who suggest they start by collecting data such as average daily gain, health events, and treatments.  Then the farm team works to determine how it will collect the data.  The team establishes when and how calves will be weighed, standard definitions for health events and treatments, how the data will be recorded, and who is responsible at each step of the process.

Calf manager Edwin, with assistance from the farm nutritionist, analyzes and summarizes the data.  The farm team discovers that calf ADG is below its goals and calf health events happen primarily in the first 14 days of life.  With this information, the team acts by adjusting its new calf and colostrum management protocols.  Moving forward, the team decides to record data such as colostrum quality and time to first colostrum feeding.

Data is a powerful resource for dairy farmers.  It becomes more powerful when we can effectively harness it to achieve our objectives and goals.

Contact your Vita Plus consultant if you are looking for someone to help you navigate your farm data.

Category: Business and economics
Dairy Performance
Technology and data management