We are so used to leaving voice messages it can only be a matter of time until you hear.

 “Good morning Boss. I will be away from the milking line today.  If this is an emergency, please check with the veterinarian or better yet – find out why more than eight diseases are going through the barn? Have a great day. Cownt Me Out!

“It’s a Wake-Up Call for the Dairy Industry”

Regardless of how you receive the message about dairy health issues, there is no question that we have already received the wake-up call.  Whenever CowntMEout and her peers are fighting health issues, they are still in the lineup and could be having a negative ripple effect because they are contagious, costing money for treatment and losing money because of lowered production. You may laugh off the “cow calling” app on your smart phone, but disease is no laughing matter.  The incidence of disease in dairy cattle is increasing. So far the only way to tackle it has been through management practices and veterinary inputs. At least that’s where our thinking has been.  It’s time to pick up the phone!

Disease has your barn number. It’s going to call back often!

There is no acceptable level of poor health and, like telemarketing calls, you will receive many visits, at inconvenient times and with increasing frustration.  The higher incidence of health problems has risen side by side with the increase in milk yield, which has been sought after and achieved over several decades. However, along with poor health, increased lactation progress has been accompanied by reproduction problems and declining longevity. As if that wasn’t a big enough hurdle, there is also a genetic one. There is clear evidence that negative genetic correlations exist between milk yield and fertility and between milk yield and production diseases.  In other words, if selection for production continues unchanged, fertility, health and profitability are going to be put “on hold” permanently.

The Health Games.  Sick is costly. Health isn’t free.

As long as our cows continue to function by producing milk, we may be willing to live in denial of health issues.  Unfortunately, the list is growing well beyond the number one which is mastitis and includes: displaced abomasums; ketosis; milk fever; retained placenta; metritis; cystic ovaries; and lameness.  What is the incidence of each of these in your herd?  Do you keep records on all of them? We know from our personal health that you can’t fix what you don’t admit is a problem.  Those tiny signs add up until “out of nowhere” there is a health crisis.  That doesn’t work for people and it doesn’t work for bovines either.

Bad Prescription. “Take 2 Bales of Hay and Call Me in the Morning!!”

Don’t you just hate it when your doctor takes a laid back approach to your serious medical concerns?  Or does that feel like a reprieve?  You don’t have to fix what you don’t acknowledge.  Or does it boil down to who has the best answer?  The vet. The nutritionist.  Your neighbour.  It probably takes all three but we really need to pull back and start answering the questions about improved health even before mating decisions are made. Huge strides have been made in dairy breeding with the implementation of genomics. DNA analysis has only touched the tip of the iceberg for what is possible in analyzing dairy genetics.  This brings your genetics provider (A.I.) onto the health team. All that is needed is the will to change.

What can we do about it? Monitoring. Managing. Action.

You can hire someone to take care of sick animals.  You can pay for medication and extra care. Or you can decide to start with genetics and try to raise the genetic health level of your herd. All of these approaches start with the same first step.  You must monitor your animals and have detailed data on where, what, when and how health issues are affecting your dairy operation.

The hardest concept when dealing with health is that preventive measures are far better and less costly in the long run than the prescription, medicine and professional caregiver route. There needs to be more preventive action taken at the breeding stage.  Here is the first line of defence to reduce the diseases that lurk within genetic code and impact profitability now and for future generations of your herd.

The most crucial first step is to have accurate data. Good complete data that accurately identifies what is happening in the herd.  The information needs to be recorded and accurate before the cow is culled from the herd.  Dr. Kent Weigel, Extension Genetics Specialist, University of Wisconsin notes. “Current reports often don’t provide enough details to identify exact reasons why cows are culled. Animals can be recorded as ‘died,’ ‘sold for dairy,’ or ‘sold for beef,’ because of low production, mastitis infertility and so on. From that data, you might conclude that mastitis and infertility are the most common causes of culling on dairy farms. However, reported reasons for disposal can be misleading when one attempts to compare the management level of various dairy farms or to draw conclusions about the genetic merit of certain animals or sire families. Furthermore, once culled, that animal will no longer contribute information to genetic evaluations.  In effect, by culling time the most important source of health data has been eliminated.”

An ounce of Genetics is Worth Pounds of Cure?

As a result of research he has taken part in, Weigel says producers should not just consider the pounds of milk a cow produces as they weigh their decision about genetic traits.
You want cows that produce a live calf without assistance, cycle normally, show visible heat and conceive when they’re inseminated. Many cows fail to complete these and other important tasks because they have left the herd prematurely.” Weigel went on to say that some animals are culled for “multiple offenses,” such as difficult calving followed by ketosis and a displaced abomasum.  “She may then fail to breed back in a timely manner and be culled when her daily milk production falls below a profitable level,” Weigel says. “The farmer might code here as ‘sold for low production’ or infertility or disease. The reported reason for disposal is often a vague indicator of the actual problem.”

Get the Code – Fill the Prescription

Given the unfavorable genetic relationships between milk production and welfare indicators, the most effective route to stop the decline or even improve dairy cows’ welfare is by developing and adopting a selection index in which welfare related traits are included and appropriately weighted.

At a recent CDN (Canadian Dairy Network) open industry meeting, more than one presenter spoke on the genetics of disease and health. The proposed response to this complex topic is to develop one index that incorporates targeted health indicators.  We see the logic that cattle who have less mastitis or and lower somatic cell scores represent healthier animals in the herd. Until actual DNA snips are identified for specific health issues and diseases, an index that combines  SCC (somatic cell score) with fore udder attachment, udder depth and body condition score to produce the newly developed MRI (Mastitis Resistance Index) will take selection for healthier animals to a higher level.  The quantity and quality of the data contributing to these indices is key to how effectively they will identify sires with the healthiest genetics.  Isn`t it great that breeders, researchers and genetics providers are working together to move beyond the obvious.

Predict the Disease Proof by Building on What We Know Already

DNA markers for economically important traits could quantify the differences and be used to justify selection decisions on young animals with reasonable accuracy.

Short term, breeding organizations are urged to use available records to include fertility, health and longevity in a selection index in which greater emphasis should be placed on all fitness related traits relative to production traits. Genetic evaluations for health should complement and not replace genetic evaluations for yield.

“The udder is always the place to start evaluating a cow,” Weigel says. “Poor udder traits are the biggest problem, followed by poor feet and leg traits. Naturally, cows that avoid mastitis or injury to their udder are going to be in the dairy herd longer.” The major advantages of the genetic improvement for any trait are that changes are cumulative, permanent and cost-effective.

Who Will Answer the Call First?

Ultimately, the successful dairy industry of the future will maintain the gains made in milk production and make equal strides in the identification of healthy cattle. Whether it’s by choice or necessity remains to be seen. It will take everyone contributing accurate data.  The breakthroughs in production were made possible by tremendous amount of supporting data. To make similar progress in fighting dairy diseases, the same cooperation in building a database will be needed. Currently in Canada only 4 in 10 herds are participating in the capture of data on the 8 production limiting diseases.  In some European countries there is a database of mandatory disease recording that spans more than 30 years.

The Bottom Line

Some will write off the concerns raised here as over dramatic.  After all, personifying your cows as phoning in sick is beyond belief.  We all know that 21st Century contented healthy cows won`t phone in. They’ll text: “Guess what Boss? I’m healthy and I’m pregnant!”

The ones who are prepared for that call will be laughing all the way to the bank.


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