Observing your cows walking activity and milk yield may help you catch some fresh-cow health problems sooner instead of later.

Research reported in the February Journal of Dairy Science shows that fresh cows diagnosed with certain ailments had higher activity levels and reduced milk production about one week before diagnosis.

Researchers from Penn State University analyzed computerized data of 1,445 early-lactation cows prior to their first breeding in three Florida herds. They found that walking activity, as measured by a pedometer, was generally lower in sick cows. On average, sick cows walked eight to 14 steps less per hour than healthy cows. However, cows with known cases of ketosis, left-displaced abomasum and other digestive disorders had higher activity levels than healthy cows about eight to nine days before clinical diagnosis. The list of digestive disorders included indigestion, reduced feed intake, hardware disease (traumatic gastritis), acidosis and bloat.

Meanwhile, sick cows produced about 33 pounds less milk per cow per day than healthy cows. Milk yield of cows diagnosed with ketosis, displaced abomasum and digestive disorders was lower five to seven days prior to diagnosis. The lower milk yield persisted until at least 10 days after diagnosis of disease.

Many studies have shown that changes in milk production are associated with the occurrence of metabolic and digestive disorders, say the study’s authors Jana Edwards and Peter Tozer, Penn State University. In contrast, very little research has explored the use of daily walking activity as a fresh-cow health-monitoring tool. Instead, it is used primarily for estrus detection.

However, this research suggests that using both walking activity and milk yield can help predict —and may even provide a more accurate diagnosis of — fresh-cow ailments, and thus prevent further milk-production losses.