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Lack of longevity: Are we in a culling crisis?

Paul R. Biagiotti Published on 24 February 2014

Who doesn’t admire age and longevity? I certainly do. Raised in New England amongst Yankees, I am accustomed to homes, towns and farms that are centuries old. Whether a centenarian, an animal or a farm family, the ability to stand the test of time and weather adversity demonstrates the possession of traits well suited to survival.

When I practiced in the Northeast, I had several clients whom the state of Connecticut had classified as “Bicentennial Farms.” These farms had been in continuous operation since the American Revolution. While recently visiting the Nutmeg State, I stopped by former dairy clients who operated such a farm.

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During the visit, they proudly showed me a cow that was 18 years old. She was of excellent type and demonstrated that, if given the chance, a modern dairy cow can live to experience the much-touted “long productive life.”

Unfortunately, current culling data suggests that such cows are increasingly rare. Recent data published by the DHIA shows an average 44 percent culling rate for Idaho dairy herds. Every year, 44 percent of the cows and first-lactation heifers in an average herd are sold for slaughter, die or otherwise leave the farm. This suggests that the average cow has only about a one-in-two chance of completing one full lactation.

I’m no agricultural economist, but it reasons that the average fresh heifer is thus not likely to pay back her investment in rearing costs. Physiologically, a dairy cow is not mature until she is in her third lactation. That is why DHI records list lactations as first, second or third or more.

Current culling rates suggest that most cows are barely making it to a second lactation. To my mind, an analogy could be made to a rental property. Once the mortgage is paid off, the profits increase remarkably. A third-lactation cow usually has had her “mortgage” paid off. She should be providing a handsome return on her investment.

I thus consider the industry to be in a culling rate crisis. Besides the poor image that current culling averages present to the non-farm public, the cost to the dairy is potentially enormous. One question to be asked is: Is cow longevity a matter of herd size? Average dairy farm size in the Northeast is about 100 cows.

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In my decade of practicing in Idaho, where farms average about 700 cows, I’ve seen cows that are a decade old or more. Whether the dairy is small or large, long-lived cows are the exception rather than the rule. Decreasing involuntary culling rate presents a huge opportunity to increase profitability and improve actual and perceived welfare, regardless of farm size.

How can you decrease the culling rate on your dairy? To begin, one must comprehend the big picture. It is all too easy to lose the forest for the trees when attacking complex issues like poor reproduction success or increased mastitis incidence.

Many of us are familiar with and use the Internet tool called Google Earth. I suggest you convene your advisory team to first take a mental “Google Earth” view of your operation. First, zoom out to get a comprehensive, inclusive view of the entire enterprise. With this picture in view, then zoom in on your farm’s culling rate.

Culling is broken down into voluntary and involuntary reasons. Involuntary culling includes death on-farm, whether through euthanasia, lack of response to treatment or “found deads.” Idaho boasts the dubious distinction of a 10 percent annual death rate of its dairy cows.

Ten percent of the herd dies on-farm every year. There have been studies trying to ascertain why cows die on farm and what from. This information gathering is hindered by inaccurate and inconsistent data entry.

It has been reported that the most commonly recorded reason for death is “euthanasia.” While euthanizing, or humanely ending the life of a dairy cow, is admirable and desirable if the prognosis is bleak, discovering and recording the reason for the euthanasia is very useful when investigating involuntary culling.

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Making an effort to get an accurate diagnosis before euthanasia, performing necropsies after and recording accurate information will prove invaluable to your advisory team.

Voluntary culling includes removing a cow from the herd due to insufficient production. High culling rates for production are frequently a bellwether of transition cow issues. Work with your nutrition team to achieve a smooth transition for your heifers and cows.

It has been proven that a major reason for low conception rates and pregnancy wastage in cows is excessive body condition loss. Body condition loss during the breeding period can be due to transition issues such as subclinical or clinical ketosis, subclinical hypocalcemia and LDA. Once discovered, these are all issues that can be addressed by your advisers.

One could argue, “But I already use bulls with high daughter productive life.” This trait is evaluated and promoted in bull proofs. Genetic information has value, but one must remember that genotype plus environment equals phenotype.

If a heifer does not have the opportunity to live out a productive life, the values are worthless. Surveys show that the major reasons for culling are production, reproduction failure and mastitis.

Production is intimately connected to udder health and fertility. If a cow does not breed back and calve again, she goes stale, gradually (or suddenly) losing production to levels beneath profitability.

A mastitic cow produces less milk, if subclinical, or goes into the hospital string and incurs additional medical treatment and labor costs if clinical. Severe or chronic infections are costly; most estimates of the costs of an episode of clinical mastitis average $180.

Do you have too many chronic mastitis cases? Is it due to insufficient or inadequate treatment protocols? Are you keeping cows with suspensory ligament damage (“blown udders”) because they produce a lot of milk? While they may look good on paper, such cows may live in the hospital pen and take up additional time in the parlor.

Why does she have a blown udder? Is it poor genetics or excessive udder edema at calving? Are you overcrowded or do you have poorly designed stalls that predispose cows to stepped-on teats? All these issues, and many more, should be investigated and addressed if one wants to decrease culling rates due to mastitis.

Reproductive culling is another category to scrutinize closely. The increased use of synchronized breeding programs has frequently eliminated the typical traditional fresh check of cows and heifers. In my opinion, this may be a mistake.

I feel that it is in the best interest of the cow to have a physical exam postpartum. For example, if a cow with reproductive pathology is relegated to a Presynch/Ovsynch program without a physical, it will be only at the first pregnancy diagnosis that she is detected.

Cystic ovarian disease is common in fresh cows and prevents normal cycling. It is not remedied by the typical Presynch series of prostaglandin injections. If noted at an early fresh check, typically at 21 to 35 days fresh, a GnRH injection can be given to resolve the problem and resume cyclicity, thus allowing Presynch to produce a fertile heat.

I will often diagnose uterine or ovarian adhesions, mucometra, pyometra, retained fetal parts from a dystocia or even a twin or multiple fetus that was not noted at calving and remains, as a mummy, at fresh cow exam. As with cystic ovaries, mucometras are treated with GnRH.

Wind-suckers can be noted at fresh cow physical examination. This condition, properly termed pneumovagina, is caused by calving trauma and results in infertility due to chronic uterine infection. It is remedied by a Caslick’s operation.

Subsequent to surgery, endometritis resolves after a cycle or two, allowing the cow to conceive. Finding pneumovagina cows can alert you to a problem in maternity. Is the crew being too hasty in pulling calves? Are they being too rough when they intervene in a calving? Or perhaps not using enough lube?

I’ve discussed just a few of the possibilities for increased reproductive culling. Many cows can be given individual attention that may hasten their return to fertility rather than accumulating profitability-robbing days open by “falling through the cracks.” Work with your veterinarian and nutritionist to troubleshoot the many other reasons for reproductive failure in your cows.

Current high culling rates are undoubtedly at least partially due to increased prices for beef. Cows that are underperforming are under increased scrutiny. If you have calculated a breakeven production level, cows that have increased days open, multiple episodes of mastitis, current LDA and a poor previous lactation record, are all valid reasons for being placed on the cull list.

Much opportunity lies in preventing cows from getting on the list in the first place. High “heifer pressure” due to successful reproduction, sexed semen use and limited facilities can also force producers to cull more heavily than desired to simply make room for fresh heifers. Allowing cows to survive and pay you back for your investment will allow you to sell these extra heifers instead.

For the reasons stated, I strongly encourage you to evaluate the reasons for culling on your dairy. By addressing the common issues discussed here, perhaps your dairy will someday earn the accolade of being named a Bicentennial Farm. PD

Paul R. Biagiotti
Basin Bovine Practice

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