The main challenge in maintaining herd health is finding the cows that need attention as early as possible without disturbing the entire herd.
Ideally, every cow would be checked multiple times a day. But this comprehensive strategy is impractical due to labor scarcity and would create a huge disruption to cows’ daily routine. Disrupting the daily routine of the herd increases stress levels which, in turn, reduces milk production. It’s a zero-sum game.
Therefore, the dairy industry adopted a practical compromise:
Cows that are in high risk for health issues (fresh cows to be specific) are physically checked daily. Later lactation cows are typically visually inspected by an employee “walking the pens” looking for the cows that may need management attention. They may also be subjected to a brief physical inspection when they are milked. In some farms, a “safety net” of blanket treatments is implemented as a proactive measure.
A compromise, is a compromise. This approach has five main limitations:
- With both fresh and later lactation cows, a cow’s health status is determined based on either a visual assessment and/or the progression of clinical signs of the ailment. She either “doesn’t look right” or is already showing the symptoms of an illness. This means that we find the sick cows too late—are reactive and must engage in aggressive (and expensive) treatments to compensate for the time lag in finding them.
- Inspecting every at-risk cow means that we are also checking quite a few healthy cows that really don’t need anything else other than to be left alone, to rest, ruminate and make milk. The stress these cows are subjected to may negatively affect their production at the most critical time of the lactation. You know the deal, the higher they peak the more milk they will make over the lactation and here we are hindering their production.
- Checking healthy cows adds to the total time it takes to check the entire fresh cow group— all the cows in the at-risk group are kept away from their stalls for much more time than needed. All cows, healthy and sick alike, stand around waiting to be checked or waiting for other cows to be checked instead of eating, laying and ruminating it is very counterproductive to our milk production goals.
- With approximately one third of cows at risk of metabolic issues post calving (to view source, click here), blanket treatments are administered to approximately 66% of cows that don’t need treatment. Can you think of other ways you could use that money?
- In the case of later lactation cows, the relative success of “walking pens” is time-consuming, highly dependent on the employee’s skill set, his/her ability to focus on telltale signals at that time, and his/her ability to identify changes that may have occurred since the previous time these cows were inspected. At best, this is a highly subjective to each employee and an inefficient task.
Schematic illustration of the effect of a health issue on milk production. Blue, health cow’s lactation curve. Red, sick cow’s lactation curve.
Maintaining cow health is a daily concern on the farm. The earlier we intervene in the case of a sick cow, the more responsive she will be to treatments and the negative economic impact of her sickness will be reduced. Lack of real-time individual cow data led to a widely accepted standard operating procedure that attempts to find animals that need attention while balancing out the need to minimize human-animal interactions. Due to its built-in inefficiency, these procedures are dependent on the use of aggressive veterinary treatments, are insufficient in finding sick animals before clinical signs are visible, and enhance human-animal interaction. All of which result in lower herd profitability.
Electronic animal monitoring solves many of these inefficiencies. While tracking activity and rumination, producers don’t think they know, they actually know the status of each individual cow in real-time. Whether there’s 100 or 1,000 cows in the herd, the ability to focus on only the cows that need medical attention or to be bred minimizes the stress and disruption of cows that are healthy and producing.
If animal monitoring is something you would be interested in learning more about, contact us here.
If you want to know more about how our monitoring devices work, read this.