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Archive for Herd Health

Awareness is one of the best tools dairy managers can make use of.  A daily barn or pasture walk with boots that don`t hesitate to poke into manure piles behind the cattle, can be a valuable signal of what`s happening with herd health and nutrition.  No special equipment is required to make a speedy determination of the color, consistency and content of the manure being passed by a group of dairy cows.

The Three C’s: Consistency, Color and Content

If the cows share the same diet, their manure should share similar characteristics.  In a 200-cow dairy, a walk-through that checks the manure of 15 to 20 cows should be able to provide enough observations to draw conclusions. The expectation is that less than five per cent will stand out as significantly different from the general herd.  It is important to determine what is causing the difference.

Check Consistency First!

Feed drives production.  Knowing the digestion status of the working cows is an important tool for making management decisions. What you see in the manure output, should be porridge-like and produce the dome-shaped  1 or 2 inch thick ‘plop’ that is the sign of healthy digestion.   Feed type, the nutrient and fibre content, water quality and intake and passage rate all have an impact on the final product.  Restricted water or protein produces firmer feces.  Dehydration results in firm balls of manure. Seeing loose feces or diarrhea may indicate excessive protein intake or high levels of rumen degradable protein.  Manure may be loose during periods of stress.  Other cases of loose manure are far more serious and their actual causes seem to be harder to pinpoint. For example, sub-clinical acidosis (SARA) causes loose manure consistency to vary amongst herd members as well as other multiple changes over time for each suffering cow.

Color Paints a Management Checkpoint

Fecal color is influenced by feed type, bile concentration, and the passage rate of feedstuffs and digesta. Recognizing what is `normal` for the current type of diet being fed, sets up the opportunity to identify variations that could indicate a need for action. Typically, manure is dark green when cattle graze fresh forage and darkens to a brown-olive if animals receive a hay ration.  When cows consume a typical TMR, feces are usually a yellow-olive color. This color results from the combination of grain and forage and will vary by the amount of grain and processing of that grain. If an animal experiences diarrhea, feces may change to a gray color. Animals undergoing medical treatment may excrete abnormal colored feces as a result of drugs that are administered.  Dark or bloody manure may indicate hemorrhaging in the gastrointestinal tract from watery dysentery, mycotoxins, or coccidiosis.  Light-green or yellowish manure combined with watery diarrhea can result from bacterial infections such as salmonella. Of course, any rapid change in colors signals that something is not right and immediate corrective action needs to be taken.

Content is Last but Not Least!

The third “c” to inspect is content. The contents of manure can provide dairy managers with information about how the dairy diet is working. Manure that is produced from cows fed a well-balanced nutritious ration (with adequate effective fibre) is very uniform. It contains digested feed particles with the majority of processed forage fibre no greater than 1/2 inch, and with little escaped grain.

Long forage particles or undigested grains are a sign that rumination has been challenged and the cause needs to be determined.  It could be a problem with the animal or with the processing of the grain itself.  Obviously these large particles in the manure mean that the nutrition in them has not been made available to the animals or to rumen microbes.

Mucus is another indicator to use as an alert.  The presence of excessive amounts of mucus indicates chronic inflammation of or injury to gut tissue. Mucin casts also may be observed. These indicate damage to the large intestine, possibly caused by extensive hindgut fermentation and low pH. The mucin is produced by cells lining the intestine in an attempt to heal the affected area. As well manure that appears foamy or bubbly may indicate lactic acidosis or excessive hindgut fermentation resulting in gas production.

A Poop Picture Helps with Informed Decision Making

manure scoring

Manure scores 1 and 5 are not desirable and may reflect a health problem besides dietary limitations. Score 4 droppings may reflect a need to rebalance the ration. As cows progress through their lactation, manure score may also shift as outlined below.

  • Fresh cows (score 2 to 2 ½)
  • Early lactation cows (2 ½ to 3)
  • Late lactation cows (3 to 3 ½)
  • Far off dry cows (3 to 4)
  • Close up dry cows (2 ½ to 3 ½)

Increasing the amount of degradable, soluble, or total protein; deceasing the amount or physical form of the fiber; increasing starch level, decreasing grain particle size (such as fine grinding or steam flaking), and consuming excess minerals (especially potassium and sodium) can cause manure scores to decline (for example from 3 to 2).

The color of manure is influenced by feed, amount of bile, and passage rate. Cows on pasture are dark green while hay based rations are more brown. High grain-based diets are more gray-like. Slower rates of passage causes the color to darken and become more ball-shaped with a shine on the surface due to mucus coating. Score 1 may be more pale due to more water and less bile content. Hemorrhage in the small intestine causes black and tar-like manure while bleeding in the rectum results in red to brown discoloration or streaks of red.

Physical Analysis

When it comes right down to manure evaluation, you have to get right down to it.  After the 3 C’s inspection using eyes, boots and cow sense information, it’s time to look deeper. Collect at least five manure samples that appear to be representative of the group of animals. Mix the collected samples and place a pint-sized sample on a .05-.08- inch mesh sieve or in a strainer. Using a hose, wash a gentle, steady stream of water over the sieve, passing across the sample continuously until the water running from the bottom of the sieve is clear. Then gently use running water to roll or float the particles to one corner of the sieve and remove all material from the sieve.

Place the washed sample on a flat dark surface and examine it for the following:

  • Long fiber particles — It is inevitable that some long forage particles will appear, but if most are greater than 0.5 inch there may be cause for concern. Poor digestion of forages may be due to the makeup of the fiber component of the diet (low quality forages) or to the ability of the animal to digest the forage being fed (poorly balanced rations).
  • Grain particles — The small intestine is capable of digesting starch, allowing the cow to utilize this nutrient. However, the amount of starch digested is limited by the rate of digesta passage through the small intestine.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

It cannot be overemphasized how important it is to effectively manage herd health and nutrition.  Every tool that informs that decision making process is valuable and manure evaluation is a valuable link in that chain of understanding.  Don`t overlook the simplicity of a boots through the barn examination of your herd’s manure production.  It’s not science but it gives the start to analyzing how your dairy diet is being consumed, digested and left behind.



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How Healthy Are Your Cows?

Monday, May 20th, 2013

There are  some herds where the temperature is checked on fresh cows twice a day for the first couple of days after calving. But for the rest, how many of us know the temperatures and the borderline sicknesses of animals in our herds?  Should we?

Let’s look at this a little closer.

Lost Dollars

“The economics of animal disease are huge and often unrecognized.”

“A goal of every dairy producer is to have healthy cows that breed back quickly.”

“Early detection of disease reduces the cost of disease to the farm and increases the length of animals’ lives.” These are three quotes from Dr Jeffrey Bewley, a University of Kentucky Professor whose research focus is precision economics.

Consider your own farm. If you are not 100% aware of the health status of every animal on your farm, how can you know the dollars disease is costing you?

There are  numbers reported that say  each mastitis case costs us $350-$400 or that each extra day open for our milking herd costs us $4 – $5 in lost profit.  But do we know anything about our heifer herds?  What does a case of calf pneumonia or scours cost? How much of our labor costs are associated with treating sick animals? And then there are costs to subclinical disease that we do not even know exist (Read more: Dollars and Sense: Herd Health and Reproduction).

The Big Unknown

How many disease incidents get missed on our farms?  Let’s admit it, we do not know.  If we could have an army of herd persons, we might come close to knowing but then our bank balance would be a very large negative number.

So let’s step away from dairy farming for a minute.  Let’s go to our local hospital, where sick people are nursed back to health. The patient is hooked up to machines for constant monitoring so that the Doctors and Nurses can use the numbers to make decisions.  Continuous monitoring.

Wouldn’t it be great to make informed decisions by having numbers provided by continuous animal health monitors on dairy farms??

Enter Precision Dairy Farming

The Bullvine has discussed milking robots (Read more: Robotic Milking: More than just automation it’s a new style of herd management and FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: Passion with a Purpose) but they are just one of many devices that capture continuous observations on our dairy farms.  Besides milk yields robots have information on milking speed, milk temperature and electrical conductivity by each quarter.  Someday soon they may be able to capture fat % and protein%.

Is it any wonder that robot owners tell us that they have never known as much about their cows and managed them so well?

But robots exist beyond the milking herd.  Calves can now be fed robotically.  And other devices are arriving on the market every year to capture more animal performance information.

Another way to consider precision dairy farming is to think in terms of more data to manage with and  make more profit from.

Like to “Know”

However before going further into what equipment is out there to capture on-farm animal data. it is important to know where you’re starting from. What are the biggest health challenges on your farm?

How would you rank the following?

  • heat detection / timing of breeding / cows not showing heats until over seventy days in milk
  • heifers not detected in heat until after fifteen months of age / heifers not calving until 27 months
  • LDAs / milk fever / ketosis
  • lameness followed by loss in production, hoof trimming, medication and milk being discarded
  • difficult calvings followed by retained placentas, metritis,… resulting in cost and delayed conception
  • animals off feed and off on performance
  • calves or heifers with health challenges
  • not able to detect the onset of sickness prior to it becoming a major problem

We all have problems. First we need to identify our problems. Only after that can we plan to manage to not have them.

Systems Available

State-of-the art milking systems will measure drops in yield. Robots will do it by each quarter of the cow’s udder, and in particular, electrical conductivity of the milk at the quarter level during milking.  Parlor systems measure it at the cow level. There is a good association between electrical conductivity, somatic cell count and mastitis.

Tags will measure rumination, or cud chewing, providing an opportunity to react quickly to, say, the onset of illness or disadvantageous feeding changes, at the single-animal and herd level

Another system uses ear tags to take the surface temperature of the inside of the right ear of each transition and fresh cow every five minutes.

A passive rumen bolus system will monitor animal core temperature, which provides information for early disease detection, ovulation detection, heat stress and timing of parturition.

Another ear tag will monitor ear temperature and  head-ear movement to identify potential peripheral shock (cold extremities), which may be particularly useful for early identification of milk fever or for detecting cows moving their head or ears more when they are in heat.

Another technology will monitor lying behavior and activity. Activity monitoring is a comparatively new technology that is gaining in use for monitoring animal health including estruses.

Yes there are new systems continually becoming available but the question is how accurate are they and do their benefits out-weigh their cost? For example, $25 more profit per cows per year from using a device may not be worth it but $200 more profit per cow definitely requires serious consideration of the technology.

Plan for Profit

It is no longer good enough to not know or ignore health (that includes fertility) details on your cows. Past approaches of ‘not sweating the small health stuff’ are not appropriate as profit on today’s dairy farms depends on taking a total package approach. Remember: you need to continually looking for ways to improve; you need to decide on the limiting factors on your farm; you need to prioritize your technological enhancements; you need to capture the information accurately and economically; and you need to manage for profit.


None of this is new information to people who work with dairy cows. We all breathe a sigh of relief when a cow gets through the transition period disease free and we can look forward to a productive lactation and a confirmed pregnancy ahead. Or when a healthy calf in born that grows quickly and enters the milking herd at a young age. Obviously the first line of defence or attack is always a proactive plan to grow and have healthy, disease free, disease resistant profitable cattle. When it comes to profitable dairy cows, raising health is a good thing!


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