AP NEWS

New technology helps Kalispell Kreamery care for cows

May 13, 2018

For the past three years, the cows that make milk for the owners of Kalispell Kreamery have been sporting high-tech ear tags - the latest technology in the bovine world.

The tags, which look like orange plastic clips about the size of an Apple watch and are called the “cow management system,” are placed in the ears of 425 cows at the dairy. They measure each cow’s temperature, and can gauge the movement of its head to determine when and how much the cow is chewing, which, in turn, tells the owners how much a cow is eating.

Over the course of three years, Kalispell Kreamery owners Mary and Jared Tuck and Mary’s father Bill Hedstrom estimate they have spent over 30,000 state grant meant to encourage agricultural growth.

The tags cost $365 each, a price that includes five years of bandwidth that sends data from the monitor on the cow’s ear to a nearby router every 15 minutes.

Once an hour, data from that router is beamed to the Netherlands, where the company that manufactures the product, Agis Automatisering B.V., is based.

Within minutes, the company crunches the hard data and sends it back across the Atlantic to the desktop system the creamery operates in the office. The usable, easy to comprehend data tells them the health status of their cows and can also be accessed from their mobile devices.

Despite the high costs, the Tucks and Hedstrom estimate they have more than paid for the technology. Being able to monitor each cow’s temperature so effectively and so often helps them recognize when a cow is going into heat much earlier than would otherwise be possible, even at a relatively small dairy like theirs.

“We’ll be laying in bed in the middle of the night, and your phone will tell you a cow is in heat,” Mary said.

A cow is in heat for about 24 hours, but they really have about a 12-hour window to capitalize on the state, Jared said. They say this technology has brought them from a 45 percent conception rate to a 65 to 70 percent conception rate - stellar for a dairy of their size. This means more cows giving more milk and raising more babies that will produce more cows and milk for years to come.

They also say it has saved a lot of time on training costs. Kalispell Kreamery exists on a figurative island in the middle of the Flathead Valley, the only creamery for hours in any direction.

That means there aren’t many workers around with experience working on dairies. They can find hard workers, but if they needed every employee to know how to work with cows they would end up importing more employees from out of state.

This technology makes it so a new employee doesn’t have to spend six weeks following an expert around to learn how to recognize a sick cow. They can instead just check the computer monitor when they get to work in the morning. It’s a lot easier to teach them the user-friendly technology than to teach the ins and outs of outward signs of cow health.

“On Day One they can pick up on a sick cow,” Jared said. “We’ve probably cut training time in half by using this system.”

Their seclusion from similar businesses also means that there isn’t an abundance of large-animal veterinarians accustomed to working with dairy cows.

“Because we are the only dairy around, we have some limited resources,” Mary said.

That means they have to serve as their own vet, and be able to detect slight metabolic changes on an hour-by-hour basis. The technology allows them to shift their emphasis of care from reactive to proactive. They are now nipping sicknesses in the bud by getting cows extra nutrients when they are getting sick rather than trying to help them recover from a bug they weren’t able to recognize until it was a full-blown illness.

“We’re able to spend a lot more time keeping cows healthy rather than working from behind,” Mary said.

Hedstrom has been working on a dairy since the 1970s, when he still sold milk from glass bottles. The dairy was started about 45 years ago in a different location in the Flathead Valley and has been in its current location off Lost Creek Drive northwest of town for the last quarter century. In 2009 the Tucks returned to the farm and the timing was right to start another adventure with Kalispell Kreamery. Their products can be purchased in most local grocery stores and they also have a retail store at the dairy. A list of wholesalers delivering their goods to retailers can be found on their website, at www.kalispellkreamery.com/locations.

Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or pfrissell@dailyinterlake.com