Not magic, but planning – keeping dairy cows healthy

Preventing dairy cow illnesses

Some decades ago, it was not unusual to have a sick dairy cow. It could be milk fever, some kind of metabolic disease or a displaced abomasum, and this usually happened after calving. Mastitis was almost normal and lameness something the cow had to deal with. A veterinarian would come, treat the cow, and most of the times she would get better: “See you next time!”

Over time, however, farmers and vets came to realize that this was just not acceptable: Not in terms of animal health and welfare and neither in economic terms. Consequently, prevention of dairy cow disease came into focus and this consisted of a more or less systematic monitoring of animals in the most critical period after calving. Schemes for “fresh cow checks” were developed and a lot of farmers would start to regularly check cows in the first week or 10 days after calving: Taking body temperature, examining ruminal movements and later even measuring ketone bodies, once devices to do this were cheaply available. No question: This helps to identify cows with problems. However, this is not “prevention” in the true sense, but rather identifying cows with problems before they get really sick.

Feed intake, cow comfort and stress level in the dry period were then identified as being a major risk factor for transition cows diseases. Previously, the dry period had been more or less systematically neglected and its importance for animal health went largely unrecognized. It is probably one of the biggest achievements in dairy cow health, that we optimized dry cow rations and significantly improved their housing and management. This is more like “prevention” in the word’s true sense.

Thorough management, animal monitoring and conscious planning

Today our understanding goes even further. Now we understand that even an optimal dry period has its limits when cows have had lactations that are not providing for their optimal health status: High body condition and long lactations due to mistakes in reproductive management are priming dairy cows for metabolic disease. Today, more and more dairy farmers realize that the healthy start into the lactation needs to be planned early in the previous lactation. While not so long ago calving interval and lactation length were the mere result of management, nowadays it is being planned consciously. Sometimes even down to the individual cow's level. This true planning of herd health also involves assessing a cow’s risk for developing disease: This is invaluable information for decision making.

In short: Keeping cows healthy is not magic; healthy cows are more than ever the result of thorough management, animal monitoring and conscious planning. Any dairy farmer should therefore:

  • Monitor the cows closely, especially in the early post-partum period. Whether done in the classic manner or by means of sensor-systems: It is a must
  • Optimize the dry period, because it is decisive to provide the cow with everything she needs at that time. Keep stress levels low and feed intake high and you will probably experience little problems after calving
  • Plan the lactation and focus on reproduction to keep the calving interval where you want it to be. Don’t let mere chance decide on the lactation length of a cow.

Doing this, you should be able to create cows that only show 4 events in the lactation cycle: Calving, Breeding, a positive pregnancy check and finally drying off. It is not magic – it is planning and prediction!