Maximizing Profitability by Optimizing Cow Productivity and Health
The heart of every dairy farm is its herd of cows, and their ongoing value is their sustainable ability to produce milk. Cow productivity is rated by the quantity and quality of milk produced, and both can vary for a number of reasons, one of which is the health of the cow.
Factors Influencing Milk Production
A multitude of factors can influence cow health and resulting milk production. While some health issues can be minor and corrected by actions as simple as a diet change, others can be debilitating, requiring comprehensive treatments and permanently affecting a cow’s ability to produce sufficient quantities of high-quality milk. Infectious diseases can create catastrophic health issues, yet they are often easily preventable with proper sanitation procedures and equipment.
Ron Erskine, Professor in Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, stresses the importance of cow health in producing the maximum quantity of high-quality milk. “When cows are healthy and comfortable, they produce greater quantities of better quality milk,” said Erskine. “Since higher quality milk brings a premium on the market, dairy farmers strive to keep their herd in top health, and sanitation plays a key role in meeting this goal.”
Erskine stressed that cows should be viewed as “metabolic athletes” to better understand what they need for top performance. He explained, “Cows utilize energy to produce milk, much like a human athlete or a thoroughbred racehorse uses energy to run a race. Metabolizing available energy and channeling it effectively into producing a product such as milk or an action like running a race requires good health nurtured by a clean, healthy environment. The goal is to maintain a cow’s health through nutrition, a protective environment and proper sanitation.”
According to Erskine, once a cow is sick, it is almost impossible to bring milk production back to where it once was. In working with dairy farmers, he stresses that prevention is the key to maximizing productivity for the life of the cow. “The process must start at birth,” explained Erskine. “Calves that have a poor start in life never reach full potential. Most calf diseases are caused by sanitation issues. As a result, pen sanitation starting on day one is critical in assuring a calf will grow into a productive adult.”
While all cows live with bacteria, the goal is to reduce the number of bacteria in the environment to lessen the chances of infections that affect health and milk production. This is done through proper sanitation of the cow’s environment, any equipment coming in contact with the animal, and in the case of milking preparation, her udder.
Mastitis, the inflammation of the mammary gland in response to bacterial invasion of the teat canal,(1) is nearly always caused by bacteria introduced through teat openings during milking. Prevention includes proper, routine sanitation of the equipment, which is much less costly than treatment of an infected cow, noted Erskine. “Treatment requires antibiotics, and the cow will have zero productivity during the recovery period when her milk is unsellable. In addition, costs accrue for medication and labor to treat the sick cow.”
Foot rot and digital dermatitis are also infections that can cause extreme discomfort in cows, resulting in poor food intake and subsequent reduction in milk production, according to Erskine. Another consequence is the added difficulty in milking infected cows, which requires additional labor and time. Regular footbaths with properly mixed disinfectants can virtually eliminate foot infections. “Footbath treatments, like all other sanitation procedures, must become a regular routine, but should be conducted more often if conditions require it, such as during wet, rainy weather.”
Ongoing pen sanitation is an absolute necessity in preventing many of the infections that can debilitate dairy herds, both for calves and cows. These sanitation routines include regular cleaning of floors, bedding, walls and feeding surfaces. Modern sanitation equipment, when used with properly diluted chemicals on a regular basis, is key in preventing infections such as mastitis, ringworm, mange, and enteric diseases such as E. coli and Salmonella.
Erskine explained, “Many of the common infections can be controlled thanks to the sanitation practices of today. However, they stand ready to reappear if inadequate sanitation measures are not maintained and will bring with them an immediate and lingering decrease in herd productivity.”