meta How Healthy Are Your Cows? :: The Bullvine - The Dairy Information You Want To Know When You Need It

How Healthy Are Your Cows?

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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