4 considerations for improving cow productivity

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The oldest cow on record lived to be nearly 49 years old. Big Bertha, a cow from Ireland, is also known for having produced 39 calves over her lifetime.

No one expects you to keep your cows around that long — even if you could. But it would be nice to keep the good ones longer if they stay healthy and productive.

In late August, DeLaval brought in experts from around the globe to discuss ways to keep cows more productive and comfortable, which ultimately may keep many of the cows in the herd longer and improve farm profitability.

Major themes of DeLaval’s Cow Longevity Conference, held in Sweden, included: 

1. THERE IS NO ONE MAGIC BULLET.

“It comes down to the basics,” says Albert DeVries, associate professor of animal science at the University of Florida. “Cow comfort is important… bedding animals, cooling cows, milking procedures, high-quality forages — what our producers already know are important to keeping cows happy and healthy.”

• Proper cooling of cows can provide $100 to $300 in extra proft per cow per year due to increased milk production and improved feed efficiency, according to Israel Flamenbaum, an international expert on cow cooling. And, by adding in the expected improvement in summer fertility and health, profitability goes even higher.

Feeding extra nutrients to calves in the pre-weaning stage will make them better milk cows down the line, pointed out Mike Van Amburgh, dairy scientist from Cornell University. Yet, many farms do not provide enough nutrients above maintenance requirements to optimize first-lactation milk yield.

• Feeding management — bunk space, feeding frequency and so on — can be as important as nutritional composition in ensuring cow health, welfare, production and efficiency, according to Trevor DeVries, animal scientist from the University of Guelph in Canada.

Bottom-line, the more productive and healthy cows are, the less likely they are to be culled. Currently, cull rates in the U.S. average between 35 percent and 40 percent, including voluntary and involuntary culls. The trick is to make more of the culls voluntary.

Many farms have a large supply of heifers, which makes it easier to cull mature cows. It may work out in times of high beef prices. But when beef prices come down, culling becomes more expensive, Albert DeVries points out.

On many farms, “we need to rethink how many heifers we really need,” he said.

2. Design facilities with cows in mind.

Are free-stalls are designed with people in mind rather than cows?

According to a veterinarian and professor in the farm animal health department at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, many of the things about free-stalls are not well-suited for cows.

“Cubicles (or free-stalls) have been built for farmers,” says Frank van Eerdenburg.

“Cubicles have not been made for cows.”

For instance, stalls are designed for the cows to defecate outside the lying area, which is beneficial for the people maintaining the barn, but not really conducive to the cows’ natural lying behavior, he pointed out.

“Most of the free-stalls are too short for the cow to lie down comfortably,” van Eerdenburg said. “With those brisket boards, they cannot stretch their legs forward” — a position that cows like to assume, he adds.

The width of the stalls is problematic as well, he said, because “cows can lie in only one position; they cannot lie on their sides and they cannot stretch their legs.”

He added, “Free-stalls should be designed according to the size and the needs of the cows, not the farmer.”

If cows can lie down comfortably for 12 hours or more every day, they will be more productive and more likely to stay in the herd.

3. SOME FACILITY CHANGES ARE QUITE SIMPLE.

High cull rates — between 35 and 40 percent in the United States and some European countries like Sweden — indicate there are a number of challenges to improving longevity.

“Most of the culling we do is the result of poor animal welfare, poor animal health, “ Jeffrey Rushen, adjunct professor in the dairy education and research center at the University of British Columbia, told attendees at the Cow Longevity Conference. The main reasons for culling include reproductive problems, mastitis, lameness and sickness and injury.

Often, management tweaks will help — it’s not always a matter of a major facility redesign, Rushen pointed out. For instance, an initiative funded by the Dairy Farmers of Canada had researchers going to 240 farms and identifying risk factors. Seventy-three percent of the farms, when told of the risk factors at their facilities, made a management change.

Changes might include extra bedding in the stalls or non-slip flooring.

“There are some quite simple solutions that can result in better health and welfare,” he said, which results in greater longevity.

4. THE TRANSITION PERIOD IS ESPECIALLY TRICKY.

Ken Nordlund, clinical professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discussed a critical aspect of cow longevity — the transition period three weeks before calving and three weeks after calving.

For years, Nordlund and others investigated the role of nutrition in explaining why some cows sail through the transition period, while others struggle. Yet, many farms had “exquisitely excellent” feeding systems and still had metabolic disorders among the cows, he pointed out. Over time, it became evident that housing issues related to feed intake were as important, if not more so, in explaining the differences.

A great ration can be fed, but if there are housing issues like overstocked pre-fresh pens, insufficient bunk space and inadequate bedding, “that great ration will not deliver great results,” he said.

Feed bunk access affects how much the cows eat, which affects fresh-cow diseases. In fact, “sufficient space at the feeding fence for all transition cows to eat simultaneously appears to be the most important determinant of transition cow performance,” he says. His recommendation is for a minimum of 30 inches of bunk space per Holstein cow in pre-fresh and post-fresh pens for a 90-minute period after fresh feed is delivered and after every milking.

“Stall surface, stall size, the number of pen moves and social adjustments that cows have to make also affect feed intake and therefore affect fresh-cow health,” he says.

The transition period is when a large majority of adult cow disease events occur. If cows can get through this period OK, their chances of completing a successful lactation and then moving on to another greatly increases.


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