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How to maximize the strength of the herd by addressing the weakness of the individual

Clemence Nash and Marc-Antoine Guesthier for Progressive Dairy Published on 29 August 2019

Precision dairy technologies are advancing at an exponential rate. These technologies are allowing us to track and monitor an individual cow’s activity, rumination, production and even location in a pen on a daily (or even hourly) basis. But with these advancements in individual cow monitoring, we sometimes forget that these individual cows do not function independently of one another in a herd. A cow is affected by how well she can access the resources she needs in a herd, both in a tiestall and a freestall environment.

In the simplest of terms, a cow needs access to the following resources to thrive: good quality feed, good quality water, a comfortable place to rest, good air quality (including appropriate cooling) and a safe, clean environment to live in. In a pen of 100 cows, how easily do all 100 of those cows have access to all of those resources? This article will address how herd dynamics play a large role in determining that access.

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The ‘at-risk’ cow cycle

A cow that is unable to defend herself will inevitably become a cow that is easily bullied away from resources. What are some factors that could lead to this? Lameness is an obvious one. Both mildly and severely lame cows will find it difficult to spend an adequate amount of time at the feedbunk, particularly during busy peak feeding times after feed delivery when feed it at its best quality. It will also be difficult for them to access water if healthy, sound cows are in front of them blocking the way. Finding lying space can also be a challenge, with lame cows often being left to use the less comfortable end stalls or being forced to lie sideways because the cows next to her in a tiestall are taking up too much space. Of course this quickly becomes a vicious cycle, in which lame cows can’t access the resources they need to recover, and therefore they continue to get worse, making themselves easy targets for bully cows, and so on and so forth. This will impact their production, their fertility (every day a cow is open costs approximately $5) and their longevity. This explains why it is estimated that each individual case of lameness costs farmers between $200 and $900.

Monitoring your cows for early signs of lameness (those cows listed as “3 - to Monitor” in your proAction Animal Care Assessment) and intervening before they progress will be key in breaking that cycle, optimizing animal welfare and sparring farmers those costs in lost milk and lost efficiency. Tracking lameness can help dairy producers estimate consequent milk loss. Figure 1 shows the results of the locomotion assessment in a herd of 100 cows. One-third of the cows showed some form of lameness (16% were mild; 11% were moderate; and 6% were severe), with results calculated at 1.54 kilograms per cow per day of estimated milk loss.

Figure 1

Other factors that can lead to a cow getting stuck in this vicious cycle include cows that are ill or in pain, such as cows after surgery or after difficult calvings. Older cows can also struggle to keep up. Additionally, first-calf heifers become “at-risk” animals when mixed in with mature cows. These young animals are experiencing calving, milking, new animals and a new environment all for the first time. They tend to be smaller in stature and more timid or anxious than mature cows. This combination of factors makes it difficult for first-calf heifers to compete for resources, putting them at risk for problems like lower production, fertility issues and lameness.

How can we break this cycle? We need to understand how individual animals will cope with their herdmates and provide an optimal environment for all of our animals. If we start with the environmental factors, the first thing that comes to mind when discussing access to resources is stocking density. Increasing stocking density will increase the pressure faced by the at-risk cows, making the cycle worse and pushing more cows into the at-risk group. In order to prevent this, aim for a maximum 100% stocking density in the stalls, 3.5 inches per cow of water space (preferably with as many water points as possible), wide alleys (minimum of 8 feet for stall alleys, 12 feet for feed alleys), crossovers every 15 to 20 stalls (ideally 12 feet wide or more) and maximum 100% stocking density at regular headlocks or 24 inches per cow of feeding space.

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Even in robotic milking systems, where cows are milked throughout the day, cows should still be given as much access to feeding space as possible so they can access feed at its freshest – right after delivery. This does become less of a priority with robotic feeding systems; however, feed availability can quickly become a limiting factor depending on how much feed is dropped and how frequently.

Good nutrition is a key factor in optimizing health; for example, following your nutritionist’s recommendations on quality additives linked to hoof health, such as copper, zinc, biotin and others, will provide cows fundamental building blocks to remain healthy. A number of on-farm assessment resources exist today to help farmers identify areas of strength and weakness in cow comfort on their farms, such as Cow Signals, Dairy Enteligen, C.O.W.S., First Steps, etc.

What about the cow factors? Obviously, minimizing lameness in your herd will help, but some lameness is inevitable. Taking prompt corrective action on lameness, and providing a space for the cow to recover separate from the larger group where she can access feed, water and rest more easily, will contribute to shortening her recovery and reduce the risk that she gets trapped in the cycle. The same strategies apply for a cow having just undergone a tough calving, a surgery or an illness. First-calf heifers would benefit from being in specific heifer groups, with perhaps a few smaller, submissive mature cows mixed in to show them the ropes and keep the group more relaxed.

Bully cows

We’ve discussed at-risk cows, but what about bully cows? We’ve probably all experienced that one cow who guards the water troughs, or the entrance to the robot, or who knocks cows over in the holding pen. Sometimes it’s just when she’s in heat, but sometimes it’s all of the time. These types of cows create stress for the entire pen, and for the people taking care of that pen. With these cows, we have to balance the benefit of keeping her in the herd versus the liability she creates for the other animals in the pen, including potentially reducing the efficiency of the entire pen. It just might not be worth keeping that cow, even if she is the “best” cow in the herd.

In conclusion

Taking into account herd dynamics and how individual cows function within these dynamics, it is important to maximize the efficiency and comfort of the whole herd. Certain tools and resources exist to help producers track and integrate this information to make well-informed decisions. Providing optimal access to all resources and preventing health problems or treating them as early as possible, with the option to segregate animals when they need it, are good first steps toward a whole herd with optimal health, production and welfare.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

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Marc-Antoine Guesthier is a dairy technology development specialist with Cargill Limited.

Clemence Nash
  • Clemence Nash

  • Digital Insights Lead
  • Cargill Limited
  • Email Clemence Nash

 

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