Long live the cows! - Report from the Cow Longevity Conference

The large share of involuntary cullings associated with health and fertility problems has become a concern to the dairy industry. As much as 70-80% of all cullings are involuntary, and the main three reasons reported are lameness, mastitis and fertility problems. Not only is this an animal welfare problem, but it is also very costly for the dairy farmer, so these issues need to be addressed. Fortunately there is plenty of research and knowledge available to support the dairy farmers, and the solutions do not have to be radical changes and large investments. Even simple things that improve the cows’ comfort can have a dramatic positive effect.


Charlotte Hallén Sandgren, veterinarian and Dairy Development Director at DeLaval International and host of the Cow Longevity conference, explained at the opening why this is important to DeLaval: “It is DeLaval’s vision to make sustainable dairy farming possible. To be sustainable we need to make sure we include all four pillars: profitability, environmental responsibility, animal welfare and social responsibility. We will touch upon all of these components at this conference. The aim of this conference is to gather forces, to cooperate and collaborate on how, based on science, to improve the productive lifetime of the cows.”

Twelve speakers from nine countries shared their expertise on the dairy cow in her environment.

Session 1 - Increasing life time, why bother?

The importance of improving cow longevity – Jeffrey Rushen, adjunct professor in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

Removing the causes of involuntary culling can significantly improve animal welfare and farm profits, but a challenge is getting this information implemented by the dairy farmers. Some producers have a low involuntary culling rate, which means that their housing and management practices are keeping health problems under control. Rushen suggested that more use of benchmarking performance between farms could be a way of motivating other dairy producers to improve their animal welfare. An animal welfare assessment done in Canada recently, showed that as much as 70-72% of the farmers subsequently said that they had made changes on the farm because of the previous benchmark and assessment.

Lameness is estimated to cost 308$ per case, and this is just the tip of the ice berg. The incidence of lameness and mastitis is much higher than what is shown in the culling rate. We should be concerned with the underlying health problems; they are costing the farmers a lot of money.

There are simple things that can be done in the barn that can have a dramatic effect. The first thing Rushen would recommend you to look at is the amount of bedding in the cubicle, the height of the neck rail and not to overstock the barn. The goal should be to have < 10% lame cows in the herd.

So, how do we get farmers to change? How are they going to be motivated to change? Rushen’s answer was through monitoring, record keeping and benchmarking. The records are used to measure against other farm’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), so they can track how they are doing over time and then benchmark with each other.

Jeffrey Rushen

The cost benefit of keeping the cow in the herd - Albert De Vries, associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Florida, USA

It has been shown that a large number of cows leave the herd early in lactation largely due to metabolic health reasons, and the risk of death is greatest early in lactation. Involuntary culling of cows early in lactation is expensive, in the order of $500 to $1000 (380 to 760 EURO) per cow (US data) not including losses in milk yield due to disease and delayed replacement etc. Efforts to reduce death rates and improve early lactation health can therefore be profitable.

Culling decisions are the result of cow factors such as health, milk production, and reproductive status, but also of factors such as the availability of replacement heifers, parlor capacity or land availability, and prices. With a good availability of heifers farmers might not be able to see the opportunities that lie in keeping healthy cows in the herd, to avoid the hidden costs behind the culling, the tip of the ice berg that Rushen mentioned, lower yield, vet costs etc.

Albert De Vries

Session 2: A cow’s eye view of the barn

The working day of a dairy cow - Lene Munksgaard, professor in Ethology and Animal Welfare and head of the research at department of Animal Science, Aarhus University, Denmark

Although cows are social animals, they compete for access to resources, such as food. This competition can lead to stress responses, and dairy cows, especially high producing cows, may find themselves in a trade-off situation between lying and eating if they are under time constraints. They will eat less when pressed for time, and consequently produce less milk. It is important to try and limit waiting time before milking for high producing cows. With increased milk yield cows have less spare time. To provide the high producing dairy cow with proper working conditions she should have free access to feed and resting areas. If the total lying time is below 10 hours per day the cow might be in lack of lying time There is a relationship between lameness and long lying bouts, where lame cows tend to lie longer. Farmers have very little knowledge of the cows’ time budgets, as it can be difficult to make an assessment. However, there are tools available, e.g devices for recording of lying behavior.

Lene Munksgaard

Walking and standing surfaces for longevity - Christer Bergsten, professor in technological systems for animal production at the Department of Biosystems and Technology, SLU, Sweden.

Lameness is detrimental to animal welfare and fertility, (if in pain cows show heat less) and it is one of the three main reasons for involuntary culling. When dairy cows are confined, as in a free stall system, their feet (when standing) and legs (when lying) are affected by wear, trauma, and by microorganisms. The cow’s ability to rest, stand and walk must be optimized. Christer Bergsten’s recommendations were to: emphasize barn hygiene and check for possible traps that can cause injuries. Reduce unnecessary exposure of feet and legs to hard, abrasive and unhygienic floors. Reduce waiting time for milking. Provide enough space at the manger and feed for all cows 24 hours/day. Invest in soft resilient flooring with rubber of excellent quality. Invest in drainage by sloping solid floors with cleansing urine canals. Preferably invest in slatted rubber and scrapers.

This might sound like a fairly big investment to make, but Christer Bergsten says that one dead cow less per year will pay an investment of 300m2 of rubber mats in 10 years. (In Sweden a dead cow is estimated to cost appr. 2 300 EURO or 3 000 USD.)

Christer Bergsten

Lying area design and barn climate - getting it right - Frank van Eerdenburg, housing and ventilation expert, Netherlands

Cows produce more milk and may live longer in a more comfortable environment. Free stalls should be designed according to the needs and size of the cows, bedding should be soft, clean, dry and if possible, inorganic. Floors should provide sufficient traction, be clean and dry, soft and in good condition. Rubber will improve walking.

There should be no bad smell inside the barn, the temperature inside the barn should not be more than 5 °C above the outside, the relative humidity in the barn should be between 50-80% and there should be no draught or dead spaces. Dust and cobwebs indicates poor ventilation.

It is the sum of all the different parts of the barn that creates an environment for good animal welfare that can improve productivity. Barns should be built for cows not for people.

Frank van Eerdenburg

Maximized feed intake – access and consumption - Trevor DeVries, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Guelph, Canada

How we feed the cows is as important as what we feed them, to ensure cow health, welfare, production, and efficiency. Feeding management strategies can be evaluated by using knowledge of cows’ feeding behaviour, of how, when, and what cows eat of the feed provided. Dairy cows should consume frequent, small meals spread out over the day, so we need to ensure they have good access to the ration formulated for them throughout the whole day. This can be achieved through frequent delivery of feed close to the time of milking, frequent feed push-up, and by ensuring sufficient space at the feed bunk Good access to clean and palatable water is just as important. Extensive sorting of feed should be avoided and the cows should be encouraged to remain standing after milking, to promote udder health.

Changes in feeding management can lead to improved feed efficiency. Some examples: One study from Ontario showed that delivering feed twice/day instead of one leads to an increase in dry matter intake DMI of 1,4 kg/day and an increase in milk yield of 2 kg/day. Feeding five times per day reduced the DMI, while the production stayed the same, showing an improvement in efficiency. Every 10 cm increase in feed bunk space led to an increase in milk yield of 1.7 kg/day. Every 2 cm/cow increase in water trough space led to an increase in milk yield of +0.77 kg/day.

Trevor DeVries

The beneficial effects of cooling cows - Israel Flamenbaum, Consultant, International Expert, Dairy Herd Management

Cooling cows in summer improves annual productivity and fertility, enhances comfort and welfare, increases longevity and reduces greenhouse gas emissions through better feed efficiency and higher milk yield.

Heat stress causes immense economical losses to the dairy sector. High-yielding cows in hot climates suffer severely from summer heat, but cows are affected by heat stress in almost all regions. This leads to a decrease in milk production and reduced feed efficiency. Fertility rate is reduced - thus increasing the calving interval and culling rate due to low productive and reproductive performances. All the cows in the herd, including late pregnancy cows, dry cows and heifers, require cooling in summer. Heat stressed cows eat less. Make sure that cows have sufficient fresh food all day long. Heat stressed cows drink more water. Therefore, there is a need to provide sufficient water trough space and avoid crowding. The most efficient system is "Direct Cooling" based on evaporation of water from the cow's skin surface by a combination of short wetting treatments followed by intensive forced ventilation. Intensive cooling of cows in the summer increases annual milk production by 10% and milk fat and protein content also increases. The conception rate of cooled cows inseminated in the summer is increased, while culling rate caused by poor health and lowered fertility is reduced – all of which leads to a marked improvement in the lifespan of the herd. Water usage remains the same. If cows are not cooled they will drink more, and use the water less efficiently.

Israel Flamenbaum

Session 3: Health management to reduce involuntary culling

Lameness – Prevention, detection, and treatment - Steven Berry, dairy management and health specialist

Prompt detection and early treatment of lameness will decrease recovery time, prevent some premature culling, and improve cow comfort. Monitoring lameness incidence and making management interventions will keep lameness at a lower level. Proper claw trimming is an essential component of lameness control and cow comfort. All walking surfaces should be kept clean of manure accumulation and provide non-slip, comfortable walking surface for cows. Footbaths should be properly maintained and cleaned at the appropriate times. Set KPI’s, watch the cows, keep records, and benchmark with other farmers.

Steven Berry

Proactive mastitis management - Eric Hillerton, chief scientist for DairyNZ Ltd

Measures in the since long recommended 5 point plan work, in most cases, well to keep mastitis under control: 1) Disinfect all teats after every milking. 2) Treat all cases of mastitis promptly. 3) Use dry cow treatment on all cows. 4) Cull all cows with more than 3 clinical cases. 5) Maintain the milking system in good conditions. Of these, post-Milking Teat Dipping is probably the most efficient measure to prevent mastitis.

Treating clinical mastitis is very costly, but there are efficient measures that can be customized to each farm’s needs. The biggest challenge right now is the careful use of antibiotics. There are tools available, like cell counters that can analyse and help identifying the chronic cases of mastitis, so that the farmer can decide whether to treat or cull. There are producers that achieve superb milk quality, so the knowledge and the tools are there.

Eric Hillerton

Getting the cow pregnant - Geert Opsomer, associate professor in bovine reproduction and herd health control at the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Gent, Belgium.

Calving interval is crucial for profitability. Difficulties in getting the cow pregnant is one of the three main reasons for involuntary culling. Calving interval should not be longer than 13 months or shorter for cows with low yield and it is not a utopia to get there. Profitability is driven by efficiency in heat detection. Find all heats and you get more profitable cows.

Optimal fertility is a key driver in terms of cow health, welfare, longevity and sustainability. To get the cows inseminated at the correct time, both optimized heat detection and an optimal nutritional management are key factors. Optimizing the dry matter intake immediately after calving is very important to attain good fertility results. The ever increasing herd sizes forces farmers and veterinarians to make optimal use of available automation, including constant monitoring of fertility and health data.

Geert Opsomer

Session 4: Critical periods during the cow’s life

The transition cow needs space and comfort - Ken Nordlund, clinical professor in the Food Animal Production Medicine group in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

70-80% of disease incidence occurs during the transition period, i.e three weeks before and three weeks after calving. And the management during this period is highly associated to the milk yield of the cow. The key management factors related to fresh cow health in our modern confinement dairy industry are: First and most importantly: Provision of sufficient bunk space so that transition cows can eat simultaneously when fresh feed is delivered, increasing cow comfort by provision of ample space within the stall to lie down and facilitate rising and minimizing lameness with deep bedded stalls or packs in this period. Minimizing social stress or the need to establish social rank during last 3-10 days prior to calving is also beneficial. An effective routine to promptly detect fresh cows in need of medical attention is also important. They need to be monitored and managed well, so that they get early treatment if necessary.

Ken Nordlund

The role of calf nutrition and management on lifetime productivity of dairy cattle – Mike van Amburg, associate professor in the Department of Animal Science at Cornell University, USA

The life cycle doesn't start the moment the cow calves. It starts the moment she is born or even earlier. The effect of nurture is many times greater than nature and the pre-weaning period is a phase of development where the productivity of the calf can be modified to enhance the animal’s genetic potential. Pre-weaning growth rate explains 22 % of the variation in milk yield in first lactation compared to only 7% variation from genetic selection. Anything that detracts from feed intake and subsequent pre-weaning growth rate reduces the opportunity for enhanced milk yield as an adult.

Feeding high amounts of colostrum to the newborn calf boosts feed consumption post weaning, showing that the amount of colostrum fed to the new born calf apparently has a synergistic effect on growth rate both pre and post weaning. Several studies have shown that for every kg of ADG (average daily gain) pre-weaning, first lactation milk production is increased by between 850 kg and 1551 kg.

Mike van Amburg

Tim Nicolaï, Vice President Business Area Aftermarket & Services at DeLaval closed the conference by saying that he and his colleagues at DeLaval hope that with this conference they are starting to contribute directly to the spreading of knowledge. They want to continue the information sharing and dialogues that were started at this conference, through continued networking, and that they hope to provide a platform for this network.

Tim Nicolaï

Further reading:

Download the proceedings here

Additional photos from the conference:

Photographer: Björn Qvarfordt

The conference speakers: Top: Trevor DeVries, Albert De Vries, Eric Hillerton, Frank van Eerdenburg, Steven Berry. Bottom: Lene Munksgaard, Christer Bergsten, Mike van Amburg, Geert Opsomer, Israel Flamenbaum, Ken Nordlund, Jeffrey Rushen.




Monica Wadsworth

Monica Wadsworth
85 articles

Writer at Milkproduction.com

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Cow Longevity Conference Summary video

Watch a summary video from the Cow Longevity Conference in Sweden 27-28 August, 2013

Increasing lifetime - why bother?

Watch a filmed interview with Jeffrey Rushen and Albert DeVries, speakers at the Cow Longevity Conference in Sweden in August, 2013

A cow's eye view on barn design

Watch interviews of speakers from the Cow Longevity Conference in Sweden in August, 2013, talking about how to design barns for best cow comfort and improved cow longevity.

Critical periods during the cows life

Interviews with speakers from the Cow Longevity Conference in Sweden in August, 2013.

Ken Nordlund, Mike Van Amburgh, scientists who participated in the Cow Longevity Conference in 2013, speak about critical periods during acow's life. These sensitive periods will affect cow health, milk production and involuntary culling rates. 

Health management to reduce involuntary culling

Interviews with speakers from the Cow Longevity Conference in Sweden in August, 2013. Here Steven Berry, Geert Opsomer and Eric Hillerton speak on health management.