Cow longevity: 'It comes down to the basics’

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TUMBA, Sweden ― There’s no one “magic bullet” to keeping productive cows in the herd;  instead, it comes down to a number of things.

“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.”

At the Cow Longevity Conference last week, sponsored by DeLaval, a number of experts from around the globe offered ideas for improved health and productivity.

  • Proper cooling of cows can provide $100 to $300 in extra profit 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.

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