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Best Practices for Achieving Longer Lived More Productive Dairy Cows

We all wish our cows could meet their potential and live 20 years or longer. However, until we discover the Bovine Fountain of Youth, this remains an elusive dream. Indeed, the average on most dairy farms is only six years. With so much potential, we need to focus on how we can help our cows live long, productive lives.

What Do WE Know About Longevity? Why Aren’t we Using What we Know?

When we develop illnesses, we don’t always have enough information to know what the root cause is.  This isn’t so in dairy farming. Mountains of data have been collected, analyzed and reported but, in general, dairy farmers are not acting up the information. We know what causes involuntary culling. We know what best practices could prevent it.  Unfortunately, the knowing and the implementing are still too far apart.

How Big is the Current Problem with Involuntary Culling?

According to Government of Canada and USDA reports, 30-40% of cows are being culled from herds each year.  Some of this is accounted for because of low production or sales of breeding stock. Those are conscious decisions made for specific reasons.  However, much of the culling is involuntary and is a huge contributor to decreased longevity. The majority of cows are culled because of reproductive problems, poor udder health, lameness and problems with feet and legs. Other illness or injuries also contribute to the high statistics. A culling rate of 40% means that a herd cannot raise enough heifers to meet replacement needs.

What Does this Mean?

High rates of involuntary culling are probably directly correlated to poor levels of animal welfare.  Unfortunately, these health/welfare problems may be indicators of something much more problematic.  The underlying health and welfare problems may be much higher than the rate of culling indicates.  Ito et al reported in 2010 that the actual prevalence of lameness among dairy cows is above 20%.  That percentage is considerably higher than the 2% that are reported as being culled because of feet and leg problems (Government of Canada, 2011). In 2008, 46% of cows in free stalls had hoof lesions (Cramer et al, 2008).  The numbers are similar in the USA.  USDA (2007) reports that four percent were culled for lameness, however an average of 20% to 55% of dairy cows are lame at any one time, depending on the region (Espejo et al, 2006, von Keyserlingk et al, 2013).

Mastitis Has the Same Pattern

In 2011, the Government of Canada reported that about 4% of cows are culled because of mastitis, high SSC or poor udder health. However, Rierkerink et al estimate that mastitis incidence is around 23 cases per 100 cow years.

Who Does A Good Job Of Achieving Longevity?

Best management practices, derived from proven science, are providing some breeders with improved animal welfare and increased profits.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we can’t help our cows live long, productive lives.  We need to put what we know, into practice to extend their longevity.

Are you meeting these herd composition benchmarks?

  • 1st lactation                  24%
  • 2nd lactation                 20%
  • 3rd lactation                  16%
  • 4th lactation                  12%
  • 5th lactation and later   28%

Best Practices that Ensure Longevity

  1. Calf Management – Protocols to raise health and reduce calf mortality.
  2. Implement Indoor Housing Factors – To reduce lameness, injury, and illness.
  3. Benchmarking of farm performance.
  4. Implement an aggressive reproduction program.
  5. Reducing lameness.
  6. Build dairy producer knowledge.

Calf Management

It might seem unusual to start with calf management when you’re talking about extending the life expectancy of cows.  Many place involuntary culling of cows in the number one slot for how to improve longevity. That seems obvious. However, less obvious, but with perhaps even more impact are the calves that never make it to the milking line. Vasseur et al reported in 2012 that pre-weaning calf mortality rates are high in North America. Mortality rate record keeping, which needs to be dramatically improved and increased, is the first step.  Setting a realistic benchmark is also important.  Unfortunately, the Vasseur study also reported “some farms with mortality rates above 19% did not consider calf mortality to be a problem.”

  • Individual housing may not affect small groups but could reduce mortality among larger groups (more than 7-10 animals).
  • The effect of a calf’s illness on her ability to milk as a cow is, in general, underestimated. Recent research (Soberon et al, 2012) shows the effect of pre-weaning growth rates on later milk yields.
  • Failure to implement well-known and documented best practices is a major reason for the continuing high levels of calf mortality on many farms.

They also noted that in Canada there are significant differences in mortality rates between farms. The differences between the highest quartile of farms and the lowest is significant which is positive in so far as it indicates that, when good management practices are implemented, it is possible to dramatically reduce the problems.

The Role of Housing in Dairy Cattle Longevity

The characteristics of the environment that your cows are house in can have a significant impact on their longevity. Even when you have bred for the best possible feet and leg conformation, it can be compromised if the housing situation itself raises the risk of injuries. Some conclude that pasturing is the answer.  More thoughtful study and design needs to be applied to creating the ideal indoor environment for lactating cows.

One Canadian survey found that nearly 25% of Canadian dairy farms scored lameness results at less than 10%. This is lower than the results reported by some pasture-based dairies, proving that it is definitely possible to do make sustainable improvements.

Five improvements:

  1. Take responsibility: Zero grazing puts the responsibility upon the producer to create housing and provide management that does not negatively impact the dairy animals.
  2. Raise the rail height: Simply by increasing the height of the feed rail at the feed bunk to above 140cms from the floor can greatly reduce the risk of neck injuries. (Zaffino, 2012)
  3. Reduce standing time: Standing on wet, concrete floors has a direct correlation with lameness.
  4. Provide comfortable stalls: Depending on the situation, sand or mattresses have been shown to contribute to reduced instances of lameness.
  5. Sufficient Bedding: Switching to sand bedding requires significant change to buildings. Simply adding more straw or sawdust bedding results in hock lesions falling to 31% from the 80% prevalence that is seen when cows are housed on mattresses and no bedding.

Benchmarking of Farm Performance

More often than not, record keeping has a positive impact. Knowing the exact incidence of lameness, mastitis or other illness help set a target for reducing them. Well-managed dairies are reaping the financial benefits of reducing lameness and raising the welfare of their milking herd.  More training, data collection, and peer sharing is a pro-active and positive way to get the results heading in the right direction.

From Candid Camera to Can-Do Care!

Consciously and conscientiously targeting the reduction of involuntary culling is directly correlated to increased cattle longevity. Ensuring that all possible means – health, housing, and genetics – are being responsibly managed – will have a direct effect on reducing involuntary culling and mortality rates.

Reproduction Must Be Managed Better

Much is written about improving reproduction. At one time, the emphasis was solely placed on heat detection.  However, successful dairy managers are now paying particular attention to reproductive management from birth, through rearing, to transition and milking.  Definitely too many breeders are willing to accept less than the best reproductive performance. The first step is acknowledging that there are reproductive problems that aren’t being solved. This must be followed up by bringing in whatever help you can to build improvements into your repro program.

Lameness is Running Away with the Profits

We expect some degree of slowness, bent backs and hesitant steps in the aging and elderly folks we see around us.  However when our dairy herd is limping, falling down or unable to get up, we are forced, whether we like it or not to cull the animal – regardless of her age.  Lameness is a serious problem which adversely affects milk yield.  Research has shown that high yielding cows are more susceptible to lameness.  Too often, we accept this as one of the outcomes of an intensive focus over the past few decades on dairy production. Even though there are excellent best practices that can be used, too often this area is disregarded at the expense of the dairy operation and the welfare of the animal.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

It takes information to make improvements.  You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge.  Dairy farmers are recognizing that they are responsible for improving their knowledge and understanding of the factors that impact longevity.  Sharing the statistics and setting benchmarks is next.  Most important, however, is implementing an action plan.

Only when improved record keeping and best practices are acted upon, will we begin to see our dairy herds reach their full lifetime potential.


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